The Death Penalty Blog

Infographic: The First Time We Ended the Death Penalty

Posted by David Crawford on June 27th, 2014



Polls Show Preference for Death Penalty Alternatives

Posted by David Crawford on June 6th, 2014

Even though support is at a 40-year low, polls still indicate that most Americans approve of capital punishment.

Or do they?

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll asked respondents to answer a series of questions about the death penalty. When asked whether they support it in general, 61% said yes. When asked about the way convicted murderers should be punished, only 42% recommended death, while 52% recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Interestingly, about a third of the people who said they supported the death penalty in principle preferred LWOP when given a choice.

More striking is that this preference existed among people in states with and without death penalty statutes. Respondents in states that authorize capital punishment preferred LWOP by 5%, while their counterparts in states that have abandoned the practice preferred LWOP by 30%.


This ABC New/Washington Post poll is only the latest to demonstrate this preference. In the last decade or so, polls around the country have shown that enthusiasm for the idea of capital punishment drops when people are given options for dealing with convicted murderers. Here is a partial list, courtesy of the Death Penalty Information Center.

  • Last month, Quinnipiac released polling figures that showed support for life sentences at 49% (40% for LWOP and 9% for life with a possibility of parole) and support for death at 43% in Ohio.
  • Earlier in the year, the Kinder Institute found that only 28% of Houston residents preferred the death penalty, while 39% chose LWOP and 29% opted for life with a possibility of parole. This is noteworthy because Houston is the largest city in Harris County (and Texas moreover), and Harris has sent more people to the death chamber than any other county since 1976. In other words, it’s surprising not to see more support for the death penalty in the capital punishment capitol.
  • A 2011 Field Poll in California showed 48% support for LWOP and 40% support for the death penalty.
  • RBI Strategies and Research found an even 45%-45% split in Colorado in 2008.
  • The Washington Post found 52% support for LWOP and 43% support for death in Maryland in 2008.
  • In Pennsylvania, Penn State’s Center for Survey Research reported 42.9% support for death, 35.5% for LWOP, and 9.6% for life with a chance at parole.
  • Blum and Weprin Associates found 53% support for LWOP in New York in 2006 and 38% support for the death penalty. Quinnipiac reported the same proportions in 2003.
  • The University of Wisconsin Badger Poll noted 50% support for LWOP and 45% support for the death penalty in Wisconsin in 2006.
  • New Jersey had 48% support for LWOP and 36% support for the death penalty in 2002, according to the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
  • A poll sponsored by Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty showed 50% support for LWOP in their state in 2001, and 45.2% support for the death penalty.
  • The Behavior Research Center found and even 46%-46% split in 2000 in Arizona.
  • And all the way back in 1997, the University of Kentucky at Louisville’s Survey Research Center found 42% support for LWOP and 35% support for the death penalty in the state.
It’s no surprise that people prefer alternatives to executions when they consider the range of punishments for serious violent crimes like murder. We already know that the death penalty doesn’t deter any more than other harsh sentencing options (such as LWOP), and that the latter costs a fraction of the price and carries no risk of executing an innocent person. 

The Death Penalty Failure They're Trying to Hide

Posted by Matt Cherry on May 13th, 2014

A letter from the desk of Matt Cherry, Executive Director:

 I have good news. Last week the supporters of a pro death penalty initiative finally admitted that they were not going to qualify for the California ballot in 2014. It was announced late on Friday afternoon, the traditional time for dumping bad news, without the big fanfare of their original announcement in February.

At that press conference, former Governors Deukmejian, Wilson and Davis declared that California’s death penalty system was broken. On that we could agree. However, they went on to claim that they had found a way to mend the broken system—something they had failed to do while they were in power for two decades. Even at the time of their announcement, their unwieldy proposal, contained in eighteen pages of convoluted legal changes, looked like Rube Goldberg tinkering with the machinery of death.

However, subsequent events—and their silence around them--have revealed to everyone just how misguided and indefensible their proposal was.

Horrifying and unworkable

The death penalty initiative sought extensive changes to California’s constitution. It proposed a sharp reduction in the time for death penalty appeals, requiring them to be taken by less qualified attorneys and courts, forcing more attorneys to take capital cases, and closing avenues for appeals.

In addition to removing safeguards around the appeals process, the initiative wanted to remove safeguards around executions, while also cloaking the execution process in secrecy.

The failure of this initiative to qualify for the November 2014 ballot is not surprising in the least. Its goal was horrifying to many Californians, and its proposed methods were unworkable.

Its goal was to move California to the top of the execution league. It would have required two executions a week, every week for the next decade, to meet its target of executing every capital convict within a decade of being sentenced to death. I never believed that Californians wanted to make San Quentin into the killing field of the Western world, though some told me that the promise to empty death row through the death chamber was one of its selling points.

But even if the people of California had voted these measures into law, their methods would have achieved the exact opposite of what the proponents claimed. For a start, it would have ramped up the costs of California’s multi-billion dollar death penalty system, as the new system became bogged down in a raft of legal challenges.

The proposed legal changes had bigger problems than a sudden increase in costs. Perhaps the biggest concern to the public was that by shortening the time for appeals against death sentences, the proposition would have greatly increased the possibility of executing innocent people.

Shocking news

The proposition needed over 800,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Yet since the initiative was launched in mid-February, we have heard nothing about signatures being collected. In fact, the only news about the death penalty in the past three months has been shocking news about how completely broken the death penalty is all across America.

In March, we heard about Glenn Ford in Louisiana. After spending 30 years waiting to be executed for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Ford became the 144th person to be exonerated from death row since the US resumed executions in 1977.

Then in May, the National Academy of Sciences published a “conservative estimate” that the number of innocent people sentenced to death is more than twice as high as the 144 who have been exonerated. That’s right: one of the most prestigious science publications in the world calculated that the US has sentenced to death more than 300 innocent people—and fewer than half have been set free.

So much for the proposal to allow less time for appeals before executing people.

May also revealed how dangerous it is to shroud the method of execution in secrecy. Despite trying to hide the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, Oklahoma showed just how cruel and inhumane lethal injection can be. The proposal for California to remove safeguards around lethal injection and shroud the process in secrecy now looks even more reckless and sinister.

The stories behind these death penalty headlines reveal the problems with the death penalty. They also explain why Californians don’t want to waste more money on trying to restart an unworkable mechanism that risks executing innocent people. The more people hear about the problems with the death penalty system, the more they turn against it.

Cost keeps growing

Yet we continue to spend millions of dollars a week on this broken system.

Back in 2011, the cost of California’s death penalty system was calculated at $4 billion. That’s how much more has been spent on California’s death penalty system, since it was reinstituted in 1978, than would have been spent if we had kept life without parole as the ultimate punishment.

Those costs keep growing. The authors of that authoritative report calculated that it cost an additional $184 million every year to maintain the death penalty system, so the figure is around $4.5 billion now. By 2016 it will be fast approaching $5 billion.

Speaking of 2016, the pro-death penalty team is now saying that 2016 is their new target for a ballot initiative.  This battle may be won, but the war goes on.

Death Penalty Focus will continue to publicize the problems with the death penalty. And we will continue to work for a world without death chambers.

As always thank you for everything you are doing to end the death penalty,


Matt Cherry
Executive Director

Ps. Our work is made possible by your generosity. You can make a tax deductible donation at any time by going to deathpenalty.org/support

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How to Stop a Heart

Posted by Mary DeMocker on May 8th, 2014

Arizona wants to kill my brother. The county attorney, sheriff, police officers, and prosecutors hope to strap Steve to a gurney and, in front of spectators, fill his veins with poison that stops his heart. We don’t know whether he might first suffer agonizing pain.

Steve’s main occupation as he paces in jail (we can’t raise the $2.5 million bail) is terror management. My brother, professor-turned-financier, is a planner and worrier. He worries about our parents—Dad the radiologist, Mom the retired minister, both 82—and how anxiety strains their aging hearts. He frets over his daughters, already grieving their mom.

All of this, taken alone, is disturbing—why taunt a human for years with his own execution? But on top of that, Steve didn’t murder anyone.


Prosecutors, I’ve learned, overcharge murder in hopes defendants “plead out” at a come-to-Jesus chat; you’re busted, here’s our evidence, ‘fess up and we’ll drop the death penalty.  When Steve refused, sure innocence would save him, he made the ultimate gamble. At first I believed things would get sorted out. Authorities just goofed. But Steve’s defense—that investigators let the murderer escape when they dropped other leads to focus on the ex-husband—enraged law enforcement. Nothing prepared me for their bloodlust.

I don’t understand it, since the usual evidence placing a suspect at the crime—DNA, fingerprints, blood, weapon, confession, witness—doesn’t exist. Other men’s DNA was under Carol’s fingernails. Instead of being troubled, the prosecution seems oddly exhilarated; somehow, exculpating evidence proves Steve is a criminal mastermind.


The public generally swallows this. Steve’s supporters vanished after media were fed key fabrications. After online news articles, readers comment cruelly and anonymously— a virtual lynch mob circling 24/7.

Don’t respond, lawyers warn, so I don’t, despite the overwhelming urge to howl my rage. Every night after tucking kids into bed, I trawl the internet for signs that truth will leak out and sanity will prevail. When I read comments like, “String ’im high!” I wonder what kind of person would heap terror onto our grief over losing Carol.


Cheerleaders for capital punishment claim victims’ families find peace after executions. But I don’t want whoever killed Carol, a sister to me for 27 years, to be executed. I wouldn’t wish on anyone what she suffered—looking helplessly into the face of her killer.

Lawyers won’t let us say any of that publicly. By the time we’re free to speak, we’ll probably be too tired and traumatized. This is capital punishment’s brutal irony; defendants’ families are terrified into a silence that helps perpetuate the broken, abusive system.

At countless pretrial hearings, Steve listens attentively, silently, as prosecutors—good-hearted people, surely, with spouses, grandchildren they spoil, personal sorrows and heroics—direct their best efforts into executing him. Every legal mechanism seems greased for conviction. When I lament to a prosecutor-turned-criminal-judge friend that I believed even prosecutors would care about truth, she smiles ruefully. “Prosecutors just want to win.”

I awaken nightly, sick with fear, and imagine the bailiff announcing, “Guilty.” Would I drop? Curse the jury? Friends say, “There are always appeals,” confident the system eventually spits out the innocent. They don’t understand that if Steve were sentenced to die, the best he could hope for would be transfer to regular prison or, far less likely, freedom, only after years of exhausting legal battle—and death row’s solitary confinement.

He can bear jail, he says, because of our support and a two-inch window through which he watches sunrise. It’s his time of quiet solace, the pouring of light, the imagined sounds of the desert’s arousal. When it rains, he strains for any scent of sage released by water touching parched leaves.

My mother, meanwhile, has a recurring vision:

Steve walks down the corridor, officers on either side, toward a room with a gurney, restraints, tubing, and needles. (A former nurse, Mom knows medical paraphernalia. How it sounds, how it smells.)

 I imagine the clock:  Eleven fifty-three . . . fifty-four. . .

She works at being able to go down the hall with him, mentally, like an angel sharing his most desperate hour. 

Eleven fifty-five. Five minutes until my son is killed.

If this scene unfolds in, say, 15 years, it’s unlikely she’ll still be alive. If she is, will it stop her 98-year-old heart?

Eleven fifty-six . . . seven . . . No.  I can't do this. 

She still hasn’t made it to midnight. Perhaps some kind of divine mercy prevents her. Or hard-wiring; a mother isn’t meant to envision her child’s traumatic death.

Or maybe, deep down, she knows that if Steve lands in that shooting gallery, she won’t be there watching. I will. And if it comes to that, I can only pray that both of their hearts give out before the onslaught of unbearable pain.

Mary DeMocker wrote this essay in 2010 before the death penalty was dropped in her brother’s case. In Oct. 2013, Steve was convicted on circumstantial evidence. He currently pursues appeal from the solitary confinement block of a for-profit maximum-security prison. Mary teaches harp and lives with her family in Oregon. For more of her writing and music, visit www.marydemocker.com.

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Michael Millman accepts "Lifetime Achievement Award"

Posted by on May 7th, 2014
Photo by Matthew Millman

 At the 23rd Annual Awards Dinner on April 15, 2014, Death Penalty Focus presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Michael Millman. Michael Millman has been the executive director of the California Appellate Project for the past 30 years, where he has demonstrated unwavering commitment to providing high quality representation to indigent people on death row.

Michael Millman is also a founding member of Death Penalty Focus and has continued to serve on our advisory board. He is a close friend and hero to many, and the Lifetime Achievement Award could not go to a more worthy person.

 Below are Michael Millman's acceptance remarks from the Awards Dinner, which were read by Jonathan Steiner, the executive director of CAP/LA. The audience was incredibly moved by his statement, and we think you will be as well.


When I received Mike Farrell’s email telling me that I had won this amazing award, I broke into tears for two reasons: Why me? And Why now?

Why these feelings? I had just been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

I did not think I would even be able to attend this dinner. Now I would have to give an acceptance speech – which blessedly, will be short.

So how did I end up here tonight?

Because of Susan Kwan, who we also honor here this evening. The day before Mike’s email arrived, I went to a wonderful celebration of Susan’s life at the Presidio in San Francisco. Some of you here tonight were there.

We heard about Susan, and her life’s work was described and praised: that we live to do good things for other people because we want to do them; that she left us a legacy of believing in the worth of all people; that her work was not about her, but about making life better for others. As Bob Sanger said that afternoon, "Our job is to leave the world a better place."

The Sunday morning many years ago that I learned my good friend attorney Brian Schechmeister had died of brain cancer, I ran down to St. Philip’s Church, a block away, to seek comfort in a spiritual setting.

"Our faith," the pastor said that morning, "we catch it from each other." To which I have come to add, ‘Our courage, our hopefulness, our strength, we catch them from each other."

I am here today because of Susan and in tribute to Susan. Susan, who worked at helping others until the last moments of her life. Susan, who persevered, despite her fatal illness. I can hear her saying, "Just accept the award, Michael. How can you not take it?"

I am also here today because of Ruth Steiner, Jon Steiner’s mother, and Margarita Rosenthal, who taught me how to die with courage and grace. It is from others that we learn how to live and how to die.

25 years ago we created Death Penalty Focus. Originally, we thought we would form a Lawyer’s Committee Against The Death Penalty, but we quickly realized lawyers are not where it’s at. We needed to reach people, and to accomplish that, we needed a broad based coalition. The result was Death Penalty Focus. I am proud to say that for many years I was a member of the Board, and since then, I have remained as a member of the Advisory Board.

I’m a lawyer. I try to persuade people by appeals to the logic, the fairness, of the law. I have not been very successful. The California Supreme Court affirms virtually every capital case it decides. It finds there was no error in the trial proceedings, or that any possible error was harmless.

And yet, lawyers have played an important, constructive role by litigating death penalty cases as tenaciously as possible, case by case. We have not gone gentle into that good night. We do not roll over. We refuse to accept any case as "clearly a death case." Instead, we have tried to litigate every case as vigorously as we can. After all the litigation, all the money spent, and the almost 1,000 people sentenced to death, California has executed 13 people in the last 47 years.

We did that, and I am deeply honored to receive this award for the work my colleagues and I have done in litigating against the death penalty.

But that said, out courtroom work is not enough. We must have the political will to end the death penalty.

Recent reports from the Death Penalty Information Center chronicle the declining use of the death penalty in the United States and the striking reality that 2% of the counties in this country produce more than half of the death judgments. To me, this reflects our declining attachment to capital punishment. In truth, most people just don’t care that much about the death penalty, reflecting its marginal relevance to the realities of our life. Now is the time to capitalize on that declining popular will, to come forward with our determination.

Our commitment will overwhelm indifference and inertia. We have come so far. We are so close.

"How many deaths will it take till we know, that too many people have died?"

I had hoped, I had believed, that I would see the end of the death penalty in California in my lifetime. Now I know that probably will not happen, although I believe, b’emuna shlama, with absolute faith, that it will happen soon. And so I ask you to make it happen as quickly as you can. The death penalty is wrong. In
Reverend Glenda Hope’s unflinching words, "The death penalty is a sin."

A few years ago, with a little help from my children, I made a button that reads: "The America I believe in does not torture or execute people." The death penalty is not who we are, or at least, not who we should be.

So, please make a commitment to end the death penalty in California, or reaffirm the commitment you have already made. And please come up after these ceremonies to the CAP table and take one of these buttons – and wear it proudly.

And when you do finally end the death penalty in California, please be sure to send me an email to let me know that it is finally gone. I look forward to hearing The Good News.


Thank you.

Michael G. Millman,
March 15, 2014

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Death Penalty Focus in the news

Posted by Matt Cherry on May 6th, 2014

When our government tries to draw a curtain over its mistakes, then it’s our job to pull the curtain back. In a democracy, that’s the only way to end the mistakes being made by our government in our name - we must bring them to public attention and demand action to end them.

Last week, we saw the government of Oklahoma literally draw a curtain to hide the writhing body of Clayton Lockett after they botched his execution. Although they tried to cover up their mistakes, we have been making sure the public stays focused on what went wrong.

As you can see from some of the media links below, Death Penalty Focus has been making sure that people not only hear about the horror show in Oklahoma, but also learn about the larger problems with the death penalty system.

One of those problems, according to a new study, is that 1 in 25 people sentenced to death is probably innocent. That’s more than 300 innocent people sentenced to death since 1976 - more than twice the number that have been officially exonerated and set free.

The news about executing innocents, along with the horrific display in Oklahoma, reveals how easy it is for the state to get the death penalty system wrong from beginning to end.

We made sure to remind the public of these fundamental problems in numerous media appearances. On Sunday alone, Death Penalty Focus had opinion pieces in both of California’s largest newspapers

In a metaphoric sense, an execution requires each of us to look the killer in the eye and kick out the chair.

We insulate ourselves from this uncomfortable fact through distance. We assign the deed to others, minions of the state, who strap the convicted person into the electric chair or jab the needle into his or her arm. Continue reading...
-Mike Farrell, President, Death Penalty Focus

We had two horrific reminders last week why California's death penalty system - the largest and most expensive in the country - is broken beyond repair.

First, we heard new evidence that hundreds of innocent people have been sentenced to
death in the United States. Then we saw political interference with the judicial system produce a gruesomely botched execution that set a new low for "cruel and unusual punishment."
Continue reading...   
    -Matt Cherry, Executive Director, Death Penalty Focus

We also appeared on TV, for example, locally on KRON4 Bay Area News, and all across the Americas on NTN24 International TV (Spanish). And we spoke at length on radio shows across the country from Harlem, New York to Orange County, California.

We are out there speaking about this issue to represent you, the millions of people who will not stand for botched executions, wrongful convictions, and wasteful spending on something that does nothing to advance public safety or human dignity.

But we need your help to keep getting the message out about the problems with our death penalty system. We encourage you to share the above articles and news stories with your friends through social media or email.

You can also help financially. Your contribution will enable us to increase our media appearances and reach even more people.

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Awards Dinner Breaks Its Fundraising Record by 500 Percent

Posted by on April 25th, 2014

Death Penalty Focus’s 23rd Annual Awards Dinner not only brought together stars, political leaders, and activists for a powerful and inspiring evening. It was also a huge fundraising success thanks to generous donations from the event’s guests and sponsors. In fact donations at the event were five times higher than the best previous fundraiser, which was just last year.


Honorable Mention Awardees and Exonerees at the 23rd Annual Awards Dinner

“The Awards Dinner provided us with powerful, sometimes shocking, reminders of why we must end the death penalty. It also showed our thanks to people who are doing so much to stop state killing. But none of this would be possible without the generosity of our donors,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. “This year’s dinner was exceptional in many ways. And our supporters rose to the occasion by making it a record-breaking fundraiser. We thank each and every person who sponsored, donated to, or attended the 23rd Annual Awards Dinner, and all those who could not attend but contributed to sponsor exonerees and law students. The success of the dinner means that we will be able to achieve even more in our work to end the death penalty.”

Inspired by a moving lineup of honorees and a generous $10,000 matching donation provided by DPF Board Members Ed Redlich and Sarah Timberman, dinner guests donated more than $20,000 on the night of the dinner, resulting in an evening total of more than $30,000. The evening’s fundraiser was the most successful in DPF’s history, netting over five times more than previous fundraisers.


Board Member Stephen Rohde stressed the importance of contributing to DPF's work.

The money raised on the night is only one part of the Awards Dinner fundraising. In advance of the event, DPF brought in $125,000 including sponsorships and advertisements! The total revenue of more than $155,000 makes the Awards Dinner the most important fundraising event of the year for Death Penalty Focus.

The event would not have been possible without the sponsorship of many generous individuals and organizations. Our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the following sponsors:

Champions:
Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares
Ed Redlich and Sarah Timberman

Benefactors:
Sherry and Leo Frumkin
Eugenie Ross-Leming and Robert Singer

Patrons:
Larry Flynt Publications
Fox Television Studios
Netflix
Sue and Richard Wollack

Supporters:
All Saints Church
Diocese of San Bernardino
G.F. Bunting and Co.
Courtney Minick and Brandon Long

Community Sponsors:
Chuck Blitz and Alison Allan
Clarke & Rice, A Professional Corporation
Nancy Cotton and John Given
Robert Greenwald and Heidi Frey
Mike Magnuson and Jack Cairl
Joan and Fred Nichols
Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary
Alan Sieroty
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange
Individual Patrons:
Garland and Farrokh Allen
Mary Broderick
Richard E. Carlburg
Robert M. Myers
Thomas R. Parker and Karen Broumand
Mary and George Regas
Sanger, Swysen, and Dunkle

Friends:
Abbey of New Clairvaux
Judith F. Blush
Mark and Marjorie Steinberg

Many other individuals, organizations, and companies also contributed to the dinner by purchasing space in the event’s program.

It is never too late to contribute, and guests who were unable to give at the event may still do so by visiting our donate page.

If you would like to support DPF’s efforts by making a general donation, please click here.

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In Memory of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter

Posted by on April 23rd, 2014

On April 20th, 2014, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter passed away. Carter was a renowned professional boxer who fought for the world middleweight title in 1964. In 1966 he was wrongfully arrested and convicted of a triple murder. After finally winning his release, Carter became a tireless advocate for the wrongfully convicted and served as the Executive Director of the Association in Defense of of the Wrongly Convicted.

Rubin Carter was a longtime friend of Death Penalty Focus and a recipient of the Death Penalty Focus Abolition Award at our 1996 Annual Awards Dinner. We are honored to have known this inspiring man, and will remember his commitment to justice.

Much has been written about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, but Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic truly captured the spirit and commitment of Carter. Originally printed in The Atlantic, you can read the article below.


http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/04/Carter/360958/
By Andrew Cohen
April 22, 2014
The Atlantic

The wrongfully convicted boxer was a cause célèbre for the likes of Bob Dylan. But he built his true legacy after he was released from prison.


The New York Times rref=obituaries">obituary of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was long on detail about the man's grim upbringing, boxing prowess, and wrongful convictions, but dreadfully short on the many ways in which he spent the last decades of his life helping other exonerees. Of the 2,500 words or so the paper employed to describe Carter's remarkable (and remarkably well-chronicled) journey, less than 200 words emphasized the good works he did for countless people upon his release from prison. Bob Dylan may have drawn attention to his wrongful conviction, but Bob Marley serves as a better soundtrack for his life. It was a redemption song.

William C. Rhoden, the Times' venerable sports columnist, did better, writing in his tribute Sunday that "Carter offers a reminder that one’s deeds on the court or on the field will be quickly forgotten; contributions to society resonate across decades. Carter’s name endures not because he had a great left hook but because of the principles he represented until the day he died." Let us now spend a few minutes highlighting the ways in which those principles were distributed to countless men and women less fortunate than Carter, who had little of his natural charisma or talent or celebrity, and who desperately needed him to help bring their cases and their causes into light.

Let us spend a few minutes, for example, with Mike Farrell, the noted actor and activist, who had this to say late Sunday night (in an email response to a query) as word of Carter's death spread around the world:

Like many, I had read Rubin's book (The Sixteenth Round) many years earlier and been deeply touched by it. In one of those incredible strokes of luck years later I was interviewed by a fellow for a documentary film and it turned out he was a friend. In fact, I think he was somehow involved in the making of the feature. At any rate, he put us in touch and became fast friends...

Rubin was such a life force, such a powerful fountain of energy, it's hard to think of him as low or sick or now gone. He was magnetic; his energy, his charisma, I suppose, affected everyone around him. Bringing smiles and laughs and a sense of possibility to everyone in his immediate vicinity.

We've spoken together in so many situations, in lectures, in debates, in press conferences calling attention to unjust and inappropriate incarcerations (his specialty), that I smile now when I think of his forever opening line: "Hello, my name is Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and I'm happy to be here. (pause) I'm happy to be ANYWHERE!" Then he would laugh that wonderful laugh and tell whatever part of his story was relevant to the situation at hand. He was a laughing, dancing, ambassador of possibility.

I know many exonerees and am proud to work with them. Too many of them are damaged, in some cases virtually destroyed by their experience. But in the best of instances, when the experience of having been wrongly convicted, imprisoned and dehumanized the way our system does has not crushed the spark of humanity within them, some seem to find an ability to rise above the anger and resentment and use their experience as a motivation to dedicate themselves to correcting the wrongs in our society.

They are, when given the opportunity, an inspiration to us all, and Rubin, with his joyful, indefatigable energy, was the prime example. We've lost a warrior.

Let us now spend a few minutes with Barry Scheck, the co-director (along with Peter Neufeld) of the Innocence Project, which has brought a measure of justice to hundreds of wrongfully convicted men and women in America over the past 22 years. The Innocence Project both enabled and benefited from Carter's indefatigable work. It both helped him and was helped by him, especially at the beginning, when he was famous and it was not. On Monday, via phone, Scheck told me that Carter was there at the very beginning of the current (and most successful) iteration of the exoneration movement:

People don't give him enough credit. When we did the first big [innocence] conference at Northwestern, on innocence and the death penalty, which led ultimately to the moratorium on executions by Illinois Gov. Ryan, Rubin was the keynoter. He did the keynote speech he always did. He would pull out of his pocket a copy of his writ of habeas corpus signed by [U.S. District Judge] H. Lee Sarokin, [the document that freed him from confinement, for the final time, in 1985]. "I never go anywhere without it," he would say.

 He would appear whenever we would ask him, at conferences all over the country. He always answered the bell. I met him two years ago, in Perth, after he had been diagnosed with cancer. I immediately asked him to come to New York to our dinner. And he came. And there were like a thousand people there, at the Hilton, and the only thing that people wanted to do that night was to have their picture taken with Rubin. He was such a thoughtful man.


And, finally, let us spend a minute or two with another man who became famous around the world for having been wrongfully convicted and then later exonerated amid great fanfare. Few people understand Carter's life better than Gerry Conlan, the Irish exoneree of the Guildford Four, whose legacy (like Carter's) was memorialized both in song and in film. Conlan is in New York this week, by chance, and took the opportunity to tell me he considers Carter "a great man" who traveled across the pond to speak on behalf of the voiceless there, and who understood that "tragedies usually happen to the most disadvantaged people in the most disadvantaged circumstances."

The point here is not to enlarge Carter in death beyond what he was in life, or to diminish the profound legal and political significance of his wrongful conviction. He will forever be a symbol of a racially unjust justice system—a system that still exists today. The circumstances of his incarceration will always engender debate. Even some of the dubious choices he made after his release, some of the challenges he created for himself, allow us all to appreciate today that he was a quintessentially American hero—flawed, raw, edgy, but eventually resolute and on a righteous path.

"If I find a heaven after this life, I’ll be quite surprised," he said shortly before his death. "In my own years on this planet, though, I lived in hell for the first 49 years, and have been in heaven for the past 28 years." It's a shame so many news outlets focused on the former and disregarded the latter. For in those 28 years of "heaven," Rubin Carter changed the world, one speech, one photograph, one exoneration case at a time. He had every right to give in to the anger he surely felt. Instead, famously, he said that "hatred and bitterness and anger only consume the vessel that contains them. It doesn't hurt another soul.

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23rd Annual Awards Dinner Draws Stars, Activists, and Exonerees

Posted by on April 18th, 2014

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez, Death Penalty Focus President Mike Farrell, Actor James Cromwell, Actor Peter Sarsgaard, Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.

On Tuesday, April 15, nearly 400 people gathered at the Beverly Hilton for the 23rd Annual Death Penalty Focus Annual Awards Dinner. Among the award recipients were Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez, Actor Peter Sarsgaard, and Capital Appellate Project Executive Director Michael Millman.

“What a wonderful, touching, thought-provoking event,” said DPF President Mike Farrell. “To be moved from laughter to tears and back again and go home with a feeling of hopeful possibility is in the finest tradition of these Death Penalty Focus dinners. And for all the glamor and star-power in the room, nothing was more impressive than the group of exonerees who stood to be recognized, their courage and commitment electrifying the evening.”

Four people were honored for their extraordinary contributions to the movement for human rights and against capital punishment.


Michael Millman, the Executive Director of the California Appellate Project, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Due to his physician’s orders, Millman was unable to attend the event, but he wrote a moving speech about his decades of work providing legal representation for indigent appellants. The speech was delivered by Jonathan Steiner, the Executive Director of the California Appellate Project’s Los Angeles office, who called Millman a personal hero.


UN Special Rapportuer on Torture Juan
Méndez.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, accepted the Human Rights Award for his work exposing human rights violations in prisons in the US and around the world. Méndez recently studied the use of solitary confinement in US correctional facilities and concluded that as little as 15 days amounted to torture. Méndez, who was himself tortured as a prisoner in Argentina, argued that the use of torture is as troubling in the US as anywhere else, and that state killings fundamentally violate human rights.


Actors James Cromwell and Peter Sarsgaard.

Peter Sarsgaard accepted the Justice in the Arts Award on behalf of the cast and crew of The Killing. Sarsgaard played an innocent death row prisoner in the program’s third season and surprised many when he revealed that his first role was one of the victims in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking. To perform these parts in a way that would deeply affect viewers, he said, required an immense amount of empathy and understanding. Translating the human toll of the death penalty has cemented his opposition to it.


Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley,

The Mario Cuomo Acts of Courage Award went to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley for spearheading his state’s effort to repeal the death penalty in 2013. O’Malley’s approach might serve as a model for other governors. Under his administration, the death penalty was repealed, crime rates have fallen due to better prevention policies, and the savings have be invested in services for victims. In his speech, the governor stressed his belief that the death penalty does not comport with the American values of progress and equal justice.


Larry Flynt and DPF President Mike Farrell.

Other honorees included victims, their families, and exonerees. Larry Flynt was honored for opposing the execution of the man who shot and paralyzed him during an inter-state crime spree. Flynt has mentioned that he had every reason to seek revenge but, with time, has realized that the death penalty serves no useful purpose. Robert Autobee was honored for his courage in the face of a system he finds to be committed to vengeance rather than justice. His son was murdered while serving as a prison guard, and Autobee said that the experience sent him into a profound moral and spiritual crisis. He found the strength to seek reconciliation with his son’s murderer and to lobby both the district attorney and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to drop capital charges.


Exoneree Nick Yarris and his spouse, Jessica, along with exoneree Obie Anthony and his spouse, Denise.

The event also honored three exonerees. In 1982, Nick Yarris was wrongfully convicted and throughout the process he proclaimed his innocence. Fortunately he was spared in 2004, becoming the 140th person to be exonerated due to DNA evidence. Yarris has published a book detailing his harrowing ordeal titled Seven Days to Live. Anthony Graves was wrongfully convicted of a murder he did not commit. Recently exonerated, Graves dedicated a portion of his restitution to a scholarship fund in honor of the professor and students who proved his innocence. Kash Delano Register was wrongfully convicted of a murder he did not commit. Register spent a shocking 34 years in prison for the crime, and was only exonerated a few months ago. He received a standing ovation from the evening’s guests.


The event highlighted the deep, fundamental problems with capital punishment around the world and in the US especially. Although this was the 23rd iteration of the Annual Awards Dinner, many attendees remarked that it this was the most spirited and significant in recent memory.

Actors Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal (married), along with DPF President Mike Farrell. Their badges read "The America I Believe In Does Not Torture or Execute People."

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Mississippi Woman Granted New Trial

Posted by on March 31st, 2014

Today, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the conviction of Michelle Byrom and ordered a new trial. The Order can be found here.

Death Penalty Focus is pleased that the Mississippi Supreme Court saw the numerous errors in Ms. Byrom's original trial and vacated the conviction. Now, Ms. Byrom will have the opportunity to present evidence of her innocence and the enormous amount of abuse she endured in a new, fair trial.

 To learn more about Michelle Byrom's case, please see this article from the Jacksonville Free Press.


The following is a statement from David Voisin, advisor to Michelle Byrom’s legal team:

“We are grateful to the Mississippi Supreme Court in recognizing the extreme injustice in this case and taking the swift and extraordinary step of vacating Michelle Byrom’s conviction so that she can have a fair opportunity to have her case heard in court. Michelle suffered extreme sexual and physical abuse from an early age and throughout her marriage. We are pleased that Ms. Byrom will now have the opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence that she is innocent of murder-for-hire.”

-David Voisin, attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, advisor to Michelle Byrom legal team
March 31, 2014

For more information, please contact: David Voisin, david@dvoisinlaw.com

###


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"Death Row Stories" Comes to California

Posted by on March 13th, 2014

Last week, CNN brought you the first episode in the new series ‘Death Row Stories’. The episode featured the case of Edward Lee Elmore, a man who spent 29 years on death row in South Carolina for a murder he did not commit. It was a powerful episode that highlighted many of the injustices that persist in our criminal justice system. 

This Sunday (3/16) at 9pm ET/6pm PT, CNN will premiere the second episode of Death Row Stories, featuring a case that happened in our own backyard. After a home invasion/murder in Sacramento, Gloria Killian, a former law student with no criminal background, was convicted of the crime. She was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison, narrowly escaping the death penalty.

The episode follows Gloria’s 18 years-long battle to prove her innocence, and the unexpected allies she made along the way.

Check out the sneak preview below, and make sure to tune in to CNN Sunday at 9pm ET/6pm PT to see the full episode!


Join us on twitter for a live discussion about the episode and wrongful convictions in California. Follow us at @DPFocus and use #deathrowstories to join the conversation!

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More Doubts Raised in Texas Execution

Posted by on February 28th, 2014

Before his execution, the arson evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham was debunked by experts as junk science. Yet the State of Texas ignored the serious doubts and crumbling evidence in the case against Willingham, and proceeded with his execution in 2004.

Now, even more evidence has come to light that prosecutors deliberately concealed information about a deal with a jailhouse informant from the Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles when opposing a stay of execution.

This evidence is simply more proof that Texas committed a grave injustice in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. It is time they admit their mistake.

Read more about this latest development in the effort to clear Willingham's name in the New York Times.

Learn more about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham at the Innocence Project.

You can also watch an excerpt from the documentary Incendiary which details the flaws in the case against Willingham.

Cameron Todd Willingham Documentary Excerpt from texastribune on Vimeo.


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"Reform" Initiative Short-changes Victims and Taxpayers

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on February 24th, 2014
Vera Crutcher's son was murdered in California. She remains opposed to the death penalty.

Last week, death penalty supporters officially launched a signature gathering effort for an initiative that would change death penalty procedures, which they claim would bring "reform" to the system. As we know, there is no way to fix California’s death penalty, and this initiative would only result in even more delays and increased expenses.


Instead, real reform, spearheaded by families of murder victims in a number of States most recently including Connecticut (2012) and Maryland (2013), means replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole (LWOP), essentially  death in prison.  Replacing the death penalty will provide justice for murder victims and their families, as opposed to the deadly mirage of "reform" offered by the proposed initiative.

As Kathleen Garcia, a victim advocate and expert on traumatic grief who has herself lost a niece to murder, declared: "It is my opinion, as well as the view of other long-standing victim advocates throughout New Jersey, that our capital punishment system harmed the survivors of murder victims. It may have been put in place to serve us, but in fact it was a colossal failure for the many families I serve." She was a central figure in New Jersey's replacement of that broken system with life in prison without parole in 2007, the true reform supported in our state by groups such as California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Sadly, this proposed initiative would continue all the harms which victim-advocates such as Garcia have cautioned against, inflicting needless psychological trauma and diverting funds from programs which can provide survivors of murder victims with counselling, therapy, restitution, and community assistance on the road to healing.

First, this initiative offers a false promise to family members of murder victims. The initiative is so filled with legal and constitutional problems and would inevitably result in lengthy litigation. While the proponents claim this would allow families of murder victims to receive closure, it is clear that it simply will continue, or worsen, the agonizing journey through the trial, appeals, and clemency process to the possible destination of an actual execution. Even in States like Texas known for their busy death chambers, executions are becoming rarer, as society finds LWOP a more manageable and reliable alternative. As Garcia says, observing that getting through the criminal justice system is a challenge for murder survivors: "When the death penalty is added to the process, the survivor's connection to the system becomes a long-term and often multidecade nightmare that almost never ends in the promised result."

In contrast, replacing the death penalty with LWOP means swift, certain, and reliable justice. The murderer is sentenced to death in prison, and the victim's family can say "case closed." While these families often point out that there is no such thing as "closure" or "getting over" the violent death of a loved one, the LWOP solution spares them years of reopened wounds and relived trauma through the long legal quest for an execution, the "nightmare" of which Garcia speaks.

Secondly, California's death penalty system -- with or without the proposed changes -- diverts funds from Victims' Services programs that can improve the quality of life for family members of murder victims. In California, replacing the death penalty with LWOP, a punishment which can be carried out immediately even while any appeals are in progress, would save an estimated $117-$184 million dollars per year.

As Garcia states: "Every dollar we spend on a punishment that harms survivors is one we are taking away from the services that can address the emergent and long-term needs of all victims."

Third, the spectacle of the death penalty both during years of complex legal maneuverings and in the fateful days leading up to a possible execution, shifts the public's attention from the murder victim and his or her family and community to the murderer. Rather than honoring the victims and their lives, citizens are distracted by a new and overwhelming drama: "Shall we kill the killer?"

Perversely, some serial killers and other Death Row prisoners relish this publicity; but it does untold harm to family members of both murder victims and Death Row prisoners. Society deserves a sober and loving reflection to honor victims and their families, not a Roman circus giving murderers the limelight in a gripping new drama of life or death.

Fourth, California's death penalty, "reformed" or otherwise, sends the invidious message that some victims and families are more important or worthwhile than others, with the execution of the perpetrator as the gold standard of "justice for the victim," and a sentence of "only" LWOP or death in prison as a kind of consolation prize at best. Which murderers live or die can be influenced by such factors as race, class, and accidents of geography.

True reform, replacing the death penalty with LWOP, sends the message that all victims and families are valued, and that the worst killers will predictably and uniformly be sentenced to live, work, make restitution, and die in prison, a sentence which does not require a new act of killing.

Finally, family members of murder victims who must cope with the agony of an unsolved case where the killer may still be at large want justice for their loved ones, and for other victims and families relegated to "cold case" files. The futile initiative would not serve their needs.

As Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims, whose brother was murdered, states: "The death penalty won't bring my brother back or help to apprehend his murderer. We need to start investing in programs that will actually improve public safety and get more killers off the streets."

In short, this misguided and deeply flawed initiative cannot make a success of a broken death penalty system which has proved to be an epic FAIL for families of murder victims and for the community at large. Donald McCartin, for many years a self-described "hanging judge" in Orange County who sentenced nine defendants to death, sums up the reality of the death penalty as "a waste of time and money....  The only thing it does is prolong the agony of the victims' families."

Family members of murder victims such as Garcia and Kerr bid us march on to the true reform we almost achieved in 2012: the proposed initiative offers a mirage which is not an oasis of justice but a deeper legal and fiscal quagmire we must avoid.

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Remembering Greg Wilhoit

Posted by Chelsea Bond on February 18th, 2014
Greg Wilhoit at the DPF Annual Awards Dinner, with attorney Ellen Eggers, exoneree Franky Carrillo, his wife Judy, and sister Nancy.
Greg Wilhoit at the DPF Annual Awards Dinner, with attorney Ellen Eggers, exoneree Franky Carrillo, his wife Judy, and sister Nancy.

I am incredibly saddened to share the news that Greg Wilhoit, a death row exoneree, passed away late last week.

Greg spent five years on Oklahoma's death row for the murder of his wife, the conviction based on junk science around a bite mark. Later, experts proved that the bite mark on Greg's wife could not have belonged to him, and he was freed.

Greg was never compensated for his wrongful conviction. In fact, he never even received an apology. It is shameful that the state of Oklahoma would never admit their wrongdoing in his case, because it would have meant so much to Greg and his family.


After being exonerated, Greg devoted his life to ending the death penalty. He worked with Witness to Innocence, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing, and DPF as a Justice Advocate. His compelling and tragic story, along with his passion, spirit, and determination to stop the system that tried to kill him, changed minds.


Though his life was challenging and he endured more than any person should have to, Greg was a kind person who was loved by many. His courageous activism and his captivating personality will not be forgotten.




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Stuttering and Gasping for Air

Posted by Chelsea Bond on January 17th, 2014

On Thursday, January 16, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire using new, untested drugs. An expert anesthesiologist warned that one of the drugs was inappropriate to use in an execution, stating that it could cause the inmate to be conscious while suffering through the sensation that he was suffocating.

The doctors concerns were well-founded. Dennis McGuire appeared to have struggled and gasped for air for more than 10 minutes. Some witnesses say that the struggle endured even longer, for nearly 19 minutes.

The family is planning on filing a lawsuit against the state for inflicting cruel and unusual punishment. Speaking about what he witnessed, Dennis McGuire's son said, "I watched his stomach heave, I watched him trying to sit up against the straps on the gurney, I watched him repeatedly clench his fist … [it] appeared to me he was fighting for his life while suffocating...I can't think of any other way to describe it other than torture."

This experimental execution that went horribly wrong is just the latest in a string of desperate and unacceptable attempts by states to prop up a failing death penalty system.

Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University specializing in execution methods, said, "[States] are out of control, taking ever greater risks with increasingly inappropriate drugs."

It is clearer than ever that this scramble to find new ways to execute people is heading down a dangerous path.

Death Penalty Focus is joining Ohioans to Stop Executions in calling on Governor Kasich to issue an immediate moratorium on all executions. This horrifying execution, which witnesses say resulted in “agony and terror”, should be a wakeup call to state leaders.

Ohio’s death penalty is broken, and this cruel execution is one more clear signal that it is time to put a stop to executions.

If you live in Ohio, please join with Ohioans to Stop Executions in calling for an immediate moratorium on executions.



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Take the next step with me

Posted by Matt Cherry on December 30th, 2013

A message to our supporters:

“Ring out the old year and ring in the new” has extra resonance for me and my family right now, because the end of 2013 marks the start of a new journey. You see, last month I accepted the position of executive director of Death Penalty Focus, and on January 2, I start working in that vital role. I am leaving my human rights work at the United Nations and moving across the continent to California to face a new human rights challenge: the abolition of the death penalty.


I took on this challenge because I believe that the global elimination of the death penalty is just a few steps away, and that the first of those steps must be the abolition of capital punishment in California.

California leads the country in the number of people it sentences to death, with 24 new death sentences in 2013, bringing the total to 747 death row inmates in California alone. It may not seem like one state could make such a difference to the world, but I assure you it can. My work at the United Nations taught me that countries across the globe look to the United States to lead the way. And currently many countries use us as an excuse to defend the practice of deliberately killing their own citizens. I’ve heard it directly from a diplomat’s smiling mouth: “You criticize us for executions, even though America executes far more than us.”

Together, we can change that. We can make the US a positive example for abolishing the death penalty. Click here to make a gift to Death Penalty Focus.


Death Penalty Focus has led us to the verge of ending capital punishment in California. Proposition 34 showed how close we are to getting a majority to vote to stop the state from ever killing another citizen. Indeed, polls show that enthusiasm for the death penalty is waning across the nation—support for capital punishment is now at its lowest level since 1972. But taking those final steps to abolition will require more work, more outreach, and more funding.

As the new executive director, I personally need your help. We must take the next steps together. We must do even more, and give even more, to take California in the right direction. It can lead the nation in sentencing its citizens to die, or it can lead the world in ending the death penalty.

Won’t you join me on this journey to end the death penalty? Please give whatever you can.

Sincerely,

Matthew Cherry
Executive Director
Death Penalty Focus


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RIP Delbert Tibbs

Posted by Chelsea Bond on November 25th, 2013

We are saddened to learn about the death of Delbert Tibbs, a death row exoneree who dedicated his life to ending the death penalty.

Delbert  was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a 27-year-old man near Fort Myers, Florida, and spent three years in prison, two on death row, before the Florida Supreme Court reversed the case. The original prosecutor, James S. Long,
declared that the case had been “tainted from the beginning and the investigators knew it.”

Delbert later moved to Chicago where he wrote poetry and continued his advocacy against the death penalty as the Assistant Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence.

Delbert Tibbs inspired people wherever he went, and will continue doing so even after his passing.Thank you for sharing your story with the world.

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Rewriting the Death Penalty

Posted by on November 14th, 2013

Check out Lawrence O’Donnell’s video about new conservative leaders speaking out against the death penalty, and DPF’s long history as a leader in the movement!

Over the years, DPF has worked to build a broad coalition of people from diverse backgrounds to join the fight against the death penalty. This coalition includes law enforcement officials, exonerees, murder victims’ family members, and people of faith. Learn more about our programs, and watch the video below!


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BREAKING: New death row exoneration!

Posted by Chelsea Bond on October 31st, 2013
Reggie Griffin discusses his experience being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.

 On October 25, Reginald Griffin became the 143rd person to be exonerated from death row since 1973. 

Griffin was sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate in 1983. His conviction rested on testimony from two jailhouse informants, who received benefits for their testimony. Prosecutors also withheld key evidence from Griffin's defense regarding a screwdriver that had been found on another inmate.

Griffins sentence was eventually changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and in 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Griffin's conviction, saying that the conviction was not "worthy of confidence." He was released, but prosecutors immediately filed charges to retry him, citing DNA evidence that allegedly tied him to the murder.

 However, that DNA evidence didn't "pan out", according to prosecutors, and the state dismissed the charges.

It took 30 years to clear his name, but Griffin is glad to put the nightmare behind him. "To not have this over my head is more than what words can describe.Now that it's over, I'm going to try to put my life back together, to go on with my life," he told The Associated Press.

Griffin is the first death row exoneration of 2013, and the 4th person exonerated from Missouri. To find out more about death row exonerations, visit DPIC's Innocence Database.

Congratulations to Reggie, and to the team of lawyers who worked tirelessly to clear his name.



Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2013/10/30/4587051/ex-death-row-inmate-exonerated.html#storylink=cpy
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California Death Row Inmate Granted International Hearing

Posted by Chelsea Bond on October 24th, 2013
Act Now button

Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate in California, has been granted a hearing regarding human rights violations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which seeks to protect human rights and basic freedoms in the Americas. Cooper has been on death row in California for 29 years, and has always maintained his innocence.

Attorneys for Cooper stated that they are “hopeful that the Commission will issue a decision directing that the United States provide Mr. Cooper with a new trial in order to allow him to prove once and for all that he is innocent of these crimes.”

Death Penalty Focus has submitted a letter to the Commission in support of Kevin Cooper, which expresses our concern about the facts of this case, as well as our stance that the death penalty is never an appropriate sentence.

Send your own letter expressing support for a new trial for Kevin Cooper to the IACHR.

To: Honorable Commissioners of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights

 From: Mike Farrell, Chair of the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus Virginia Van Zandt, Interim Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus

Re: Kevin Cooper v. United States, Case No. 12.831

Dear Members of the Court,

We write representing the Board of Directors, staff and thousands of members/supporters of Death Penalty Focus, one of the premier abolition organizations in the United States, in support of your attention to the plight of Kevin Cooper.

While we do not pretend to be qualified to judge the legal questions surrounding Kevin Cooper’s case, our 25 years of work against the death penalty in California and across the nation have made us painfully aware of the glaring faults inherent in this inappropriate, ineffective system and the grievous errors committed in its implementation. California houses our nation’s, and possibly the world’s, largest death row, currently encaging 742 condemned men and women.

Because of a judicially imposed moratorium, there has not been an execution in California in 7 years. This moratorium, however, can end at any moment and, regardless of the state’s ability to carry out executions, the condemned struggle to subsist under conditions which a recent report by our Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) says “clearly violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture.” This opinion, regarding both death row conditions and the death penalty itself, is shared by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

As is the case with every killing state in the U.S., capital punishment’s use in California is primarily limited to racial minorities and those too poor to be able to afford an adequate defense. California has barely escaped killing six innocent men* who were tried, convicted, sentenced to death and spent years fearfully awaiting the executioner before finally being exonerated and freed.

But we did execute Thomas Thompson in 1998, a man Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a long-time veteran of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, described (New York University Law Journal) as “the first person in the Nation ever to be executed on the basis of a trial that an un-refuted decision of a United States Court of Appeals had held to be unconstitutional.”

While unable to argue the legal aspects of Kevin Cooper’s defense, we are keenly aware of the compelling 100-page dissent in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in his case in which Judge William A. Fletcher stated that Mr. Cooper was “probably” innocent. Four other judges joined his opinion, stating that “California may be about to execute an innocent man.”

We commend your careful attention to this troubling case.

Respectfully Yours,

Mike Farrell
Chair, Board of Directors

Virginia Van Zandt
Interim Executive Director

* California death row exonerees: Troy Lee Jones, Lee Perry Farmer, Jerry Bigelow, Patrick Croy, Shujaa Graham, Oscar Lee Morris

Click here for a PDF version.

For more information about the troubling aspects of the investigation, see the declaration by Tom Parker, former Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.




"I am free. I am free."

Posted by Marisol Dominguez on October 4th, 2013

 Herman Wallace endured 42 years of solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, decades of injustice, a battle with liver cancer so that he could finally say, "I am free." On Tuesday, October 1st Wallace was released and three days later he died in his sleep, due to his terminal disease. This case has received much spotlight because of the racism surrounding the conviction and the cruel treatment of being placed in SHU for decades. Herman Wallace is not a lone example of the injustices of the criminal system as he accounts for one of the Angola 3. The 'Angola 3,' Herman Wallace, Robert King and Albert Woodfox,  were charged with the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller, in 1972. At the time of the murder, the 'Angola 3' were completing a sentence for armed robbery and played key roles in the Black Panther movement within the prison. Since their accusation of killing the guard, The Angola 3, were removed from general prison population and continue to claim their innocence.  


Their trial was far from fair and decades of appeals have not produced enough change. As of today, October 4, Wallace has passed away with a looming re-indictment, King is free after having his conviction overturned in 2001, and Woodfox continues to live in solitary confinement. Justice will prevail when the court overturns all convictions and the 'Angola 3' receive an apology. But then, we should ask ourselves, is this really justice?

Herman, Your spirit will continue to inspire people to fight for a more humane and just world.

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Texas Executes 500th Inmate...now what?

Posted by Chelsea on June 26th, 2013

Tonight, Texas executed its 500th person since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

It is the first state to reach this unseemly milestone, with current Governor Rick Perry playing a major part, having presided over 260 executions (also a record).  It’s a shocking number, and though it  is certainly is a grim milestone, what does Texas executing its 500th person actually say about the current state of the death penalty in the United States?

Executions per year since 1995



The truth is: not much.


The death penalty has been in decline since the late-1990s, when executions reached a fever pitch. 


In the past six years, six states have replaced their death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, which brings the number of death penalty-free states to 18. Of those 32 states that still have a death penalty on the books, only six have executed anyone this year.


Decline of death sentences per year since 1995 Since life in prison without the possibility of parole became an alternative, juries have  also been less inclined to sentence people to death. Even in Texas, the rate at which people are being sentenced to death is falling dramatically.

The current state of the death penalty is not reflected by this astronomical number.  It is reflected in the downward trends in executions and new death sentences. It is reflected in the growing number of states that have replaced the death penalty. It is reflected in the shrinking number of states that are actually executing people.

 Texas’ 500th execution is sobering, but the movement to replace the death penalty is only speeding up.  The death penalty is prohibitively expensive, it’s taking away resources from programs that actually improve public safety, and we’re sentencing innocent people to die.

The death penalty is on the path toward demise, and Death Penalty Focus is committed to seeing this through to the end. Tonight was a grim reminder that our work is not yet done, but each year, we come closer to achieving our goal of ending the death penalty in the United States.

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20th Anniversary of Sister Helen's bestselling book, Dead Man Walking!

Posted by on June 17th, 2013

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Sister Helen Prejean’s bestselling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. In celebration of this anniversary, the book will be re-released tomorrow, June 18th!

This book, recounting Sister Helen’s experience and bond with death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, helped bring more attention to the death penalty. Sister Helen created a much needed discussion about the death penalty, and though much progress has been made since the book was first released twenty years ago, she continues to work tirelessly to put an end to Capital Punishment once and for all.

This book has opened the eyes of the thousands of readers, and will continue to bring awareness to the death penalty issue in the years to come. Who knows? Perhaps for the 40th anniversary of Dead Man Walking, we will be celebrating the end of the death penalty in the U.S.!

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One for Ten

Posted by on February 21st, 2013

We're really excited to be supporting a new documentary series - One For Ten - that will tell the stories of ten innocent people who were exonerated and released from America's death row.

Ray Krone is just one of those innocent people. One for Ten chose Ray's story to be the first of their short films. You can check it out here (Danny Glover even introduces it!)

Over five weeks in April and May, One for Ten will travel across the country, producing two films a week for immediate online distribution. All the films will be free to watch and free to share.


They are supported by a broad coalition of charity partners of which we're excited to be a part and the project is totally interactive, which means you can have a hand in asking the questions and giving your feedback on the films as they're released.

In order to make this project happen, One for Ten needs support and funding. Watch what their project is all about, and if you want to see more, consider contributing to their campaign.

You can support this project by LIKING them on Facebook, FOLLOWING them on Twitter and SHARING their campaign with your networks.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | 2 comments



Death Penalty and California

Posted by on January 22nd, 2013

We know that California's death penalty is broken. This new infographic by the California Innocence Project breaks down why - cost, wrongful convictions, and racial injustice. While California didn't vote to end the death penalty this time, the conversation must continue and more people must learn about these staggering statistics.

Death Penalty Infographic - An Infographic from CA Innocence Project

Embedded from CA Innocence Project

Despite Proposition 34's narrow loss, support for the death penalty is declining

Posted by Jessica Lewis on November 19th, 2012

“The death penalty in California survived by a narrow vote on November 6, but around the country the signs are clear that capital punishment is slowly on the way out,” writes Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, in his article “The Slow Demise of the Death Penalty.”


“Although California's recent vote means the death penalty will remain, the 47% of voters who favored replacing it indicates many Californians have had a change of heart regarding capital punishment. By contrast, the initiative that reinstated the death penalty in 1978 garnered the support of 71% of voters.”


Read the full Huffington Post article here.

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URGENT: Get Out The Vote for Prop 34

Posted by on October 22nd, 2012

It's crunch time! We are now counting the days until November 6, when Californians will have a chance to vote YES on Proposition 34 to replace the state’s death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.

Death Penalty Focus has been a critical part of this effort, and now we're reaching out to ask our community for support.

The campaign is seeking volunteers to fill each of the following important roles:

Phone Banking: Help reach 100,000 voters by calling through a targeted list. Yes on 34 staff will train and prepare you to have these critical one-on-one conversations. You can join one of many phone bank locations or you can call from the comfort of your home.

Door-to-Door Canvassing: Join Democrats and other Prop 34 allies as they go door-to-door in their neighborhoods, passing out literature and discussing the important issues and candidates on this years ballot in order to ensure that our supporters go to the polls and vote!

Street Outreach: Meet up with fellow volunteers in your area at one of the many community festivals and events happening the Friday before the election. As a group, you will pass out flyers and answer questions about the initiative to passersby. The Monday and Tuesday before the election, Yes on 34 volunteers will be passing out flyers at busy transit locations.

Office Help: Help Yes on 34 prepare materials for Get Out The Vote by cutting flyers, packaging materials, and making volunteer recruitment phone calls.

Please sign up to volunteer via the Yes on 34 site here.

Thank you for your help - on November 6, we will make history!

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Families of murder victims speak out

Posted by Chelsea Bond on September 20th, 2012

California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CCV), a project of Death Penalty Focus and Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation, has been an outlet for families of murder victims to speak about their opposition to the death penalty.

It is often said that the death penalty is needed to give closure to the families who have lost their loved ones. But what if you find that the death penalty does not give you closure, relief, or justice? 

In a series of videos, our CCV members explain why they have chosen to support alternatives to the death penalty. Please take a moment and watch!


Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | 1 comments



Wrongful conviction and the path to justice

Posted by Jessica Lewis on July 6th, 2012

Death Penalty Focus Justice Advocates and Witness to Innocence joined forces with the SAFE California campaign to showcase three men’s inspiring stories of wrongful conviction and the fight to prove their innocence.

Francisco “Franky” Carrillo Jr. was exonerated in March 2011 after serving two decades for a drive-by shooting he did not commit. Franky was just 16 years old when six witnesses identified him as the shooter. All six eventually recanted their testimony, admitting that they were influenced to make their identifications by the police and by each other. Franky now works as a Justice Advocate with DPF to tell his story and educate the public about the real danger of incarcerating and even executing the innocent.

After almost nine years in prison (two of which spent on death row), DNA evidence acquitted Kirk Bloodsworth of the 1984 rape and murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton. Kirk, a former Marine, was connected to the crime by testimony from five witnesses and forensic evidence that supposedly linked the print of his shoes with marks on the victim’s body. It wasn’t until 1992, thanks to the help of Centurion Ministries of Princeton, New Jersey, that Kirk obtained approval for the DNA testing that proved his innocence. The first U.S. death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA, Kirk now travels the country speaking for Witness to Innocence.

Nathson “Nate” Fields spent almost 20 years in prison, including more than 11 years on death row, for a double homicide he did not commit. Nate and a co-defendant were accused of killing members of a rival gang in 1984, and in 1998, it was uncovered that the judge in Nate’s case had taken a $10,000 bribe. Nate was granted a new trial, but his co-defendant exchanged testimony against him for a lesser sentence. However, in 2009, Nate was acquitted of all charges and was awarded a certificate of innocence. Nate serves on the board of Witness to Innocence.

Franky, Kirk, and Nate spoke out about their experiences and why they support SAFE California at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Bethel AME Church in Los Angeles and at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in San Diego.

(Image: Nate Fields and Kirk Bloodsworth enjoying the Los Angeles sun in between speaking engagements.)

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We need to help the victims of crime

Posted by Mary Kay Raftery, guest blogger on June 6th, 2012

My oldest son, Paul Raftery, was murdered on December 8, 2006 in Helena, Montana by two young men looking for drug money. Paul had no money in his wallet.

Prior to Paul’s murder, I had been involved with California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty. Sometimes, people would tell me that I would feel differently about my views on the death penalty if my child was murdered. After I received the call that Paul had been killed, I stopped to think about my opinion. It hadn’t changed.

I don't understand the concept of closure. After all, putting someone to death, in my case those two murderers, will never bring my sorely missed son back. The two murderers received sentences of life with the possibility of parole after 55 years, essentially a life sentence. I felt justice had been served.

I’d had the chance to talk to Paul about my activities with the California People of Faith. That’s when he quietly told me he, too, opposed the death penalty. I was surprised, but very gratified that he shared my beliefs having served 12 years as a law enforcement officer.

In November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote for SAFE California, a ballot initiative that will replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. This measure will save Californians over $1 billion in the next five years and create a one-time fund of $100 million to help local police investigate and solve the 46% of unsolved murders across the state.

My hope is that no mother is forced to endure the loss of a child to violent crime. That is why I believe so strongly in using our resources to prevent crime and keep our streets safe. The death penalty costs Californians $184 million a year more than the alternative but equally harsh punishment, life in prison without the possibility of parole. That money would be better spent hiring more police officers to help protect our communities.

I also believe that we need to be providing for the victims of these horrible acts. SAFE California means that victims will not be dragged through decades of appeals. Inmates will be locked up behind bars forever, where they will work and pay money toward restitution and victim compensation. They will lose the special privileges that death row provides them, including their own cell. And the tremendous savings will help free up money to support victim services like counseling and medical treatment.

It has now been five years since the young men who murdered our son were sentenced and we received justice. To honor Paul, I am expressing my support for the SAFE California Campaign. I hope that others will see that it is time we start using limited resources to address the real issues behind violent crime, and to help the victims that are left behind. 

Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | 3 comments



Honor Dr. King by volunteering to end death sentencing in California

Posted by on January 10th, 2012

This Monday, I will honor Dr. King’s passionate commitment to justice by volunteering to gather the signatures that will help us end the death penalty in California.

This upcoming weekend, January 14-16, will be a “Weekend of Action” where you can join us in this effort. Volunteers will be joined by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the California NAACP, and civil rights leaders throughout the state as we come together in support of the SAFE California Campaign. The SAFE California Campaign has less than two months to gather the remainder of signatures required to qualify for the November 2012 ballot, and volunteers are needed to help reach our goal.

Will you join us in honoring Dr. King and help end death sentences in California?

The SAFE California campaign is sponsored by a broad coalition of justice organizations, including Death Penalty Focus, who are all joined in the commitment to replace the death penalty to protect the innocent, save our very limited state resources, and improve safety in our communities. SAFE is working hard to get the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify the “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act” ballot initiative in time for the November 2012 election.

I am proud to say that Death Penalty Focus is one of the organizations leading this effort. For over 20 years, we have worked to get to this point, and with your help, we can make history in California this November.

We also take the time this coming weekend to honor all victims of senseless violence. Coretta Scott King declared, “As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses.” As Coretta Scott King knew, in order to create a future with less crime, we must end this risky and costly punishment.

Now is the time to step forward and join together in this campaign to end the death penalty in California. As a member of Death Penalty Focus, I hope you will join the thousands of volunteers statewide who are ready to commemorate Dr. King’s leadership by joining this historic movement over MLK weekend.

    In Solidarity,
    Ana Zamora
    Program Director

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Our secret weapon

Posted by Mike Farrell on December 29th, 2011

2011 has been a year of tremendous achievements, heartbreaking losses and, at last, real hope for change in California.

In March, Illinois followed New York, New Jersey and New Mexico and abolished the death penalty. Two months later, we at Death Penalty Focus were thrilled to honor Illinois Governor Pat Quinn at our Annual Awards Dinner. Governor Quinn, who had long supported the death penalty, spent two months deliberating on his decision.  At our event he spoke eloquently about his change of heart. "If the system can't be guaranteed 100% error-free, then we shouldn't have the system," Quinn said. "It cannot stand."

April brought the incredible Jeanne Woodford to Death Penalty Focus as our new Executive Director. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Jeanne, please hear me when I say that she is our secret weapon for ending the death penalty in California - and beyond. As the warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne experienced the pain of overseeing four executions.  After leaving San Quentin, she was appointed to head the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  Today, the more people Jeanne has the opportunity to meet and talk with, the more support we gain for ending the death penalty. It’s almost that simple. Put Jeanne in front of a group of death penalty supporters and before long their support begins to evaporate. We are thrilled to have her on board.

I am also thrilled that, last week, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon halted executions in his state. In a simple but uncompromising statement, he echoed the growing distaste for capital punishment being heard in many of our courts, our legislatures, churches, and homes.  "I am convinced,” he wrote, “we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values.  I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor."  Bravo Governor Kitzhaber!


September brought the heartbreaking execution of Troy Davis. Yet, even on that most awful day, Mr. Davis himself understood that his death would galvanize support for ending this barbaric practice.  On his last day he said, "There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country…Never stop fighting for justice and we will win!"

I wholeheartedly agree with Troy Davis. We will win. In fact, next November California voters have the chance to replace the death penalty with life without parole.

Here at Death Penalty Focus, we know what it takes to convince people to end the death penalty.  DPF excels at empowering exonorees, crime victims’ families, and law enforcement professionals to be effective spokespersons for alternatives to the death penalty. We know from focus groups that these voices are the most effective in changing hearts and minds.


Please make a generous donation today, so that Death Penalty Focus can honor the memory of Troy Davis by making California the next state to end the death penalty.

Thank you.

Mike Farrell President, Death Penalty Focus

PS- Because of contributions from dedicated supporters like you, we continue to move closer to ending the death penalty. We can’t do this work without you. Please donate today!

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SAFE California Initiative Spells Swift Justice

Posted by Margo Schulter on November 3rd, 2011
November 3, 2011

A story that has stuck with me over the decades comes from a school civics text. A criminal came into the town of Milwaukee and killed a man. He was arrested in the morning, tried in the afternoon, and that evening was already serving his life sentence in the State Penitentiary.  Sadder but wiser, he expressed admiration for Milwaukee as a place which stood up for justice.

This brand of swift and decisive "frontier justice" in homicide cases is a topic of stories not only in Wisconsin, which
abolished the death penalty in 1853, but also in Michigan, famed as the first English-speaking jurisdiction to abolish it for murder in 1846 (the death penalty for treason technically remained on the books until 1963). Society's message was clear: take a human life through premeditated murder, and you'll spend the rest of your natural life in prison.

While we may be unable in 21st-century California literally to achieve same-day justice in homicide cases, the SAFE California Initiative will provide the same kind of swift, certain, and nonlethal justice that the old stories from places such as Michigan and Wisconsin celebrate. And by comparison to the decades-long ordeal often inflicted by our broken death penalty system on families of murder victims and condemned prisoners alike as well as society at large, the progress of a life without parole case from arrest to trial to permanent imprisonment of the murderer may seem almost as fast as in those stories of a century or more ago.

One feature of the initiative may recall another phrase of old: "life at hard labor." Under the SAFE California Act, prisoners sentenced to life without parole will be required to perform labor and make restitution to the Victims' Services fund. Not only will they live and die in prison, but they will be held accountable both to the families of their victims, and to society at large as the victim of every assault on the sanctity of human life.

It would be naive, of course, to think that society can devise any punishment that will deter all murders. All too often, for example, we hear of mass shootings where the offender commits suicide with the final shot, or has a history of suicide attempts; so the death penalty hardly seems to dissuade them. However, if there is an effective deterrent to make some potential killers think twice, it might be life and death in prison plus labor and restitution to society. This is especially true if word gets out on the street that the law is really being enforced.

The SAFE California Act makes a commitment to help get that word out by directing $100 million over the period 2012-2016 to a SAFE California Fund to improve the rates at which homicide and rape cases are solved and the perpetrators arrested and punished. Getting killers off the streets not only directly prevents more homicides or other violent crimes by these same perpetrators, but indeed sends a message of deterrence to others.

Currently, with 46% of homicides and 56% of rapes going unsolved, that message is not so clear. What we need to do is to establish very clearly, in practice as well as theory, that killing one's victim in the course of a robbery or sexual assault -- in order to prevent them from making an identification or testifying, for example -- is a recipe for swift detection and a sentence of life, labor, and death in prison.

The SAFE California Fund is a first giant step at making swift and certain punishment a reality. As the Attorney General's summary of the initiative very cautiously estimates, abolishing our broken death penalty system will produce savings "in the high tens of millions of dollars annually," with the Fund thus representing only a relatively small portion of these savings. A recent study by federal Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula Mitchell suggests savings of $184 million a year, greater than the total amount of the Fund over the full four-year period! The Legislature, of course, will be free to apply more of these savings to local law enforcement and also to crime prevention strategies such as mental health interventions, while retaining needed flexibility at a time of budgetary crisis.

While swift and certain justice is always an ideal to be striven for, the old stories remind us that society can respond to the tragedy of murder in a clear, decisive, and nonlethal way. The SAFE California Act is an invitation to clear the decks of a failed death penalty policy, roll up our sleeves, and give our police the support that they need as we move together toward a safer and saner future.

If you would like to volunteer for the SAFE California campaign, please visit www.safecalifornia.org

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Leading the US effort for Worldwide Abolition

Posted by Elizabeth Zitrin on
October, 10, 2011



Worldwide abolition of the the death penalty.

It will be wonderful when it happens, and while you know about Death Penalty Focus' 20-plus years in the forefront of the movement in the US, you are probably less familiar with our international work against the death penalty. Right now, we ask you to join an international petition for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.

We reported to you recently that we are working hard now for the SAFE California initiative to replace California's death penalty with life without the possibility of parole in 2012. When we suceed in California, it will be big news all over the world, particularly in our large international abolition movement.

In 1988, when DPF was founded, only 35 nations worldwide had abolished the death penalty completely, and another 18 had abolished it for ordinary crimes. Today, 139 countries, most of the nations on earth, have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. The US, sadly, is in the very bad company of China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen as one of the top five executing nations, but we are working every day to be a strong part of the international trend away from capital punishment.

Death Penalty Focus is in the leadership of this international abolition movement, as a member of the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Every year, on October 10th, World Day Against the Death Penalty, the World Coalition's 125 member organizations in 35 countries, participate in an international program of education and activism against the death penalty.

This year, the 9th World Day Against the Death Penalty is focusing on The Inhumanity of the Death Penalty. We have launched a Petition drive in support of the United Nations resolution calling for a worldwide end to the use of the death penalty. This resolution will be voted on in the General Assembly of the UN in December of 2012.

We hope you will join DPF in the leadership of US participation in this international movement toward abolition by signing the 2011 International Petition Against the Death Penalty. This movement is growing and gaining momentum, both in the US and all over the world, and we are very excited to be a part of it.


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A Very Premeditated Murder

Posted by Margo Schulter on September 28th, 2011

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


In the immediate wake of the tragic execution of Troy Davis, killed by the State of Georgia despite serious doubts concerning his guilt and widespread appeals for clemency even from usual death penalty supporters, one of the most moving voices was that of Allen Ault, former Director of the Georgia Department of Corrections, who had himself supervised and helped carry out executions in Georgia.

As part of the movement to save Troy Davis's life, Ault had joined with former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford and other retired corrections officials asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider its decision denying clemency to Davis, a decision reached according to one account by an agonizingly close 3-2 vote.

Interviewed by Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC only minutes after the execution of Troy Davis, Ault spoke directly about the experience of carrying out a death sentence:

"It's one thing to theorize about it or talk about it abstractly, but when you're in the death chamber ordering an execution, and even if you… actually believe somebody isguilty, it's still a very premeditated murder. It's scripted and rehearsed. It's about as premeditated as any killing you can do."

Talking with Maddow about the special burdens placed on "people of conscience" carrying out an execution where there are doubts about guilt, as in Davis's case, Ault emphasized the more general issue of killing itself:

"It['s] exacting a toll whether you believe they're innocent or they're guilty. You're actually killing somebody.”


Ault mentioned getting letters from citizens eager to volunteer for the post of executioner.

"There are people without conscience, psychopathic type people, some of them politicians, and sadists who would volunteer. I would hate to see us fall; to be that depraved that they would let people like that do the execution.”

"I can't see the justification. If we're just reaping vengeance for somebody, I don't see the justification in
that either. I talked to a lot of families of victims who didn't feel fulfilled after the execution took place. I can't speak for all the families of victims, but I know I've talked to many."

That same day, one of those family members, Ross Byrd in Texas, experienced, as did Ault, the sadness and defeat of an execution after he had struggled for clemency. Byrd is the son of James Byrd, an African-American who became the victim of an especially horrible act of racist hate: being tied to a motor vehicle and literally dragged to his death. As Byrd explained, in words much like those of Ault, why he sought clemency for Lawrence Brewer: "We can't fight murder with murder."


As mentioned above, one of the signers of the appeal by retired corrections officials to save Troy Davis's life is Jeanne Woodford, now Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus. Like Ault, she learned at first hand "how empty and futile the act of execution is."

"As the warden of San Quentin, I presided over four executions. After each one, someone on the staff would ask: `Is the world safer because of what we did tonight?'

"We knew the answer: No."

With the killing of a prisoner where innocence is at issue such as Troy Davis -- or Tommy Thompson in California (July 14, 1998) -- the toll on corrections officials and officers may be especially high. But the psychological and spiritual price of brutalization is too high in any execution, not to mention the price, human and fiscal, exacted upon society at large, which means us all. As Woodford sums things up:

"To say that I have regrets about my involvement in the death penalty is to let myself off the hook too easily. To take a life in order to prove how much we value another life does not strengthen our society. It is a public policy that devalues our very being and detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our community safe."

To honor Troy Davis, and also Officer Mark MacPhail for whose murder he may have been executed although innocent, Death Penalty Focus and the SAFE California campaign will continue our movement to abolish the death penalty in California at the ballot box in 2012 and provide better support to law enforcement and victims' services. That would be a fitting legacy for these two victims of homicidal
violence.

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Final Hours

Posted by Christine Meuris on September 22nd, 2011

 

Originally posted on Fair and Unbalanced

In the earthquake cottage I shared with my husband, on the night of July 13th 1998, the phone rang. It was about 10:00pm. The summer fog would have rolled through the Alemany gap several hours before. It would have been a cold damp night and though bed was the reasonable place to be on a night like that, I was up waiting. My husband and his colleagues were awake too, trying not just to wait, trying to stave off the helplessness they were feeling. They were at the office working to bring as much media attention to the night as they could, legal options having been exhausted.

Thomas Thompson had been within hours of his execution a year before when a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had spared him. This stay was now permanently vacated and once again he was scheduled to die within hours.

My husband had been with him at the prison. Thompson's mother had been there too in the private visiting room, where state procedure allows for a shackled last few hours. Trays of cold cuts and cheeses lay on a table bringing to mind working lunches, staff meetings and birthday parties. Was anyone hungry?

At six o'clock, the visitors including the lawyers were required to leave. A member of Thompson's legal team would come later to be a witness, while the rest worked on.

That is how my husband came to be at the office while the collect call from San Quentin came to our house. Upon accepting the charges I heard for the first time the voice of the man who had occupied so much of my married life, the man who my husband was fiercely trying to protect from the ultimate punishment.

In the summer of 1981, I was a skinny kid in a red and white bathing suit playing in the waves and collecting shells washed up on the sand in Laguna Beach, California. That same summer in that very vacation town an awful situation or plot, depending on how you look at it, was brewing for Ginger Fleishli and Thomas Thompson. By early September of that year, Ginger's body was found wrapped in a sleeping bag in a field.

The man convicted of this crime was now asking me whether my husband was home. No he was not, he was at the office. Did he have the number I asked? He did, and that was all there was to say. What does one say to someone who is keeping a stiff upper lip and who for the second time in a year is staring into the face of death by injection? I stumbled and bumbled, almost saying "good luck" before I said the only thing there was to say, "Goodbye."

I hung up the phone feeling as though the wing of death had brushed overhead, through the fog that blanketed my husband's office, our home and the prison.

Last night, my husband listened to the radio quietly to hear the fate of Troy Davis while I put the kids to bed. This morning I woke to find him going through his morning chores, heavy hearted. The U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for Troy Davis' execution and he had been put to death.

A reporter had called my husband in Troy Davis' final hours to ask whether my husband saw any connection between the Thompson and the Davis case. There was so much doubt raised upon appeal about the defendant's guilt. Each man faced a breathtaking stutter-stop journey of temporary defense victories on the way to the death chamber. My husband pointed out these things.

But it is the second thing, common to all cases, this bumpy road of hope and despair while fate hangs in the hands of others that is the final, impossible obscenity of the death penalty and the creepy thing that made our hearts heavy this morning as we got the kids ready for school.

These cases are subjected to level upon level of review in an attempt to ensure that the death penalty is administered properly; states search for ways to kill people that do not set their hair on fire or suffocate them while the are too tightly strapped to writhe; as we do all this, the one thing we cannot do anything about, is the forcing of an otherwise healthy person to stare for years at their untimely death, as they swing between hope and despair.

It is impossible to imagine what this is like, as impossible as finding the right words to say, when a man in this position, in his last hours, calls on the phone.

 

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The time has come. We’re ending the death penalty.

Posted by Ana Zamora on
Program Director

Mark your calendars, friends: November 6, 2012 will be a day to celebrate. It's the day we're going to end the death penalty in California.

On August 29, 2011, Taxpayers for Justice, a group of law enforcement professionals, crime victim advocates, and individuals exonerated from wrongful conviction, launched the SAFE California Campaign, to put before the voters an initiative that will replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It has taken years, even decades of work by many of you to get to this point. I know some people thought it might never happen. But it is really happening. And yes, we really can win-with your help.

SIGN UP NOW to join this tremendous and historical effort to end the death penalty. We are actively seeking volunteers to help gather the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

Now, a little information about the initiative.

The SAFE California Act will:

  • Replace California's death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole; 
  • Require inmates to work and pay restitution to the victims' compensation fund; and
  • Allocate $100 million over three years to solve more murders and rapes in California and protect our families.

The SAFE California Act is an important law because:

  • Murders and rapists need to be caught and brought to justice. But 46% of murders and 56% of rapes go unsolved every year. We need to use our limited resources to investigate and solve these crimes and keep our families safe, not on our broken death penalty. 
  • We remain at risk of executing an innocent. Nationally, 139 people have been freed from death row after they were found to be innocent. With the death penalty, we will always risk executing innocent people. 
  • Since California voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1978, our state has spent $4 billion dollars to execute only 13 people. If the SAFE California Act is passed by voters on November 6, 2012, we will save $1 billion in only five years.


The SAFE California Act will prevail at the ballot because:

  • Californians are changing their minds about the death penalty every day. A July 2011 poll found that 54% of likely voters support replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. 
  • We have the tremendous support from Death Penalty Focus members LIKE YOU. In order to qualify for the ballot, we need to gather signatures and WE NEED YOUR HELP TO DO SO. Please sign up today, or let me know personally that you would like to join me and the rest of the DPF staff in gathering signatures. You can email me at ana@deathpenalty.org.

For additional information and to receive updates from the campaign, please visit the Taxpayers for Justice website at http://taxpayersforjustice.org.



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DPF Welcomes Ana Zamora!

Posted by Stefanie on August 31st, 2011

Ana has long admired the work of Death Penalty Focus and is honored and excited to join this organization as Program Director. Ana graduated from Mills College in 2005 with a Bachelor's Degree in Political, Legal, Economic Analysis and a Minor in Sociology. Two weeks after graduation, Ana was selected for a job that would really change her life. The California Appellate Project (CAP) hired Ana, as their new Training and Mitigation Coordinator. At CAP Ana had the opportunity to work alongside expert capital defense lawyers and learn about California's dysfunctional death penalty system. After working at CAP for four years, Ana was hired to work with Natasha Minsker at the ACLU of Northern California on their Death Penalty Policy Project. Ana will continue to work with the ACLU's death penalty project part-time. Ana lives in sunny Oakland with her wife, Stacey, and her cat named Turtle.

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West Memphis 3 Freed

Posted by Stefanie on August 24th, 2011

We are thrilled to report that after 18 years, Damien Echols has been released from death row and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley have been freed from prison. The three men, known as the West Memphis Three, have always maintained their innocence. Read the New York Times breaking story.

We'd like to thank the nearly ten thousand supporters who took action last year on behalf of Damien Echols and the other two men.

Your action made a difference.
You helped save three lives--one from execution and two from a lifetime behind bars.

Thank you for standing up for justice and speaking out for the innocent. These victories remind us that we are winning. With your continued activism and financial support, we are confident that the wins will continue.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often repeated the saying, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Thanks to your actions and your support, we know that we will keep bending that arc and we will end the death penalty in our lifetime.

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Dear Governor Brown, We Are Turning the Tide!

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on August 11th, 2011

On August 11, 1977, a fateful day in your life as the Governor of
California and mine as a young activist, I was a guest at the
apartment of my friend Miriam Rothschild in San Francisco, the
very epitome of a devoted volunteer to her community. We knew
each other through our involvement in the Northern California
Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and together watched on
television the drama that was unfolding at the State Capitol.

The members of the Assembly were casting their votes as to
whether or not to override your principled and courageous veto of
Senate Bill 155, a bill which, among other things, restored
capital punishment in California. The moment of truth came when
an Assembly member from the Los Angeles area announced that he
could not disregard the evident wishes of his constituents, and
cast the vote providing a 2/3 majority to enact the bill over
your veto.

Today, happily, there is another bill making its way through the
legislature to uphold the ethical and human values which you so
courageously defended 34 years ago, and to do so with direct
participation by the voters themselves: Senate Bill 490,

This bill, if enacted and signed by you, will let the people of
California decide at the ballot box in 2012 whether or not to
impose permanent imprisonment or life without parole (LWOP)
as the uniform and consistent penalty for all capital offenses in
California. Under California law, LWOP prisoners are required to
perform labor and thus make restitution to the victims of crimes,
including family members of murder victims, so SB 490 actually
means "LWOP plus restitution," or LWOP+R for short.

How can we hope to abolish the death penalty in California at the
ballot box, after a list of defeats with which we are both
intimately familiar? For example, Proposition 17 in 1972 amended
our State Constitution to overturn a landmark decision of the
California Supreme Court holding capital punishment to be a
"cruel or unusual punishment."

In 1978, urged to go beyond the Legislature's "weak-kneed death
penalty law" passed over your veto the previous year, voters
passed Proposition 7, vastly expanding the range of "special
circumstances" murders subject to death or LWOP.

And in 1986, your appointee Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and
two of her colleagues were denied confirmation by the voters
after a highly politicized and often acrimonious campaign largely
focused on the Court's reluctance to affirm death sentences.

Given this history, the very idea of "winning at the ballot box"
seems to call for a serious sanity check. During the 25 years
since the calamitous judicial reconfirmation election of 1986,
three trends have been percolating beneath the surface of public
opinion which now give us the momentum to turn the tide.

First, as early as 1989, Professor Craig Haney at University of
California Santa Cruz found through a scientific survey of
eligible California voters that although 79% expressed "support"
for the death penalty, 67% actually preferred the alternative of
LWOP plus labor and restitution (LWOP+R), with only 26% still
preferring the death penalty when this choice was offered. A
follow-up survey in 2009 by Professor Haney and associates showed
very similar results, with 66% "support" for the death penalty
when no alternative was offered, but again only 26% when the
alternative choice was LWOP+R.

The same trend was revealed in a poll just this April by David
Binder Research, in which 63% of Californians surveyed favored a
proposal to convert the sentences of all current Death Row
prisoners -- around 715 -- to LWOP+R. Majorities of Democrats,
Republicans, and Independents supported this measure as a way of
saving a billion dollars every five or six years at this time of
budgetary crisis in our State.

The second trend which has been percolating beneath the surface
for more than two decades is a recognition of the full cost of
the death penalty, fiscal and human, and the devastating
opportunity costs our futile machinery of legal death inflicts on
other law enforcement measures which can effectively reduce crime
and punish its perpetrators more swiftly and consistently.

As early as March 1988, only a year and half after Chief Justice
Rose Bird was forced by voters to leave the Court, Stephen
Magagnini of the Sacramento Bee documented how California could
save $90 million each year by replacing the death penalty with
LWOP.

At that time, Magagnini estimated that at an extra cost of $90
million a year, and assuming the historical rate of about six
executions each year, taxpayers would be paying about $15 million
per execution. Two decades later, to borrow Mahatma Gandhi's memorable
phrase, we can say this estimate was rather a "Himalayan
miscalculation" -- in the low direction!

Since 1977, California has had 13 executions at a cost placed by
federal Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School
Professor Paula Mitchell at $4 billion. That amounts to about
$300 million dollars per execution, or 20 times what seemed to
Magagnini and others a reasonable estimate in 1988. A report by
question of costs, "And today, with California's urgent budget crisis in law
enforcement and victims' services as well as other vital areas,
we simply can't afford this kind of extravagance!"

Getting more cops and homicide investigators on the beat, solving
more "cold case" homicides and improving on the clearance rates
for murder now at only around 50% in many of our counties,
keeping services for victims adequately funded, and "connecting
the dots" to prevent some of these homicides and other violent
crimes -- these are agendas the public can understand. And SB 490
gives them the opportunity to rethink priorities in a situation
the voters didn't have before them in 1972, 1978, or 1986.

Finally, there's a third trend that's been quietly percolating
over these eventful decades: a recognition that LWOP actually
means what it says in California! Over 3700 California prisoners
have received this sentence, with only a handful released because
of the one "escape clause" we should want to keep: later it had
been discovered that they were actually innocent of the offenses
for which they had been convicted. LWOP, like the death penalty,
spells permanent incarceration and death in prison -- but allows
room for correcting the rare but not unknown miscarriage of
justice.

Today, 34 years after the fateful passage of SB 155 which you
courageously sought to avert, we are turning the tide: SB 490
points the way to victory through the ballot box. On this day, as
victory is within our sight, we might remember the words of the
late Justice Stanley Mosk, a great California jurist and tireless
public servant under you and your father:

     "The day will come when all mankind will deem killing to be
      immoral, whether committed by one individual or many
      individuals organized into a state."

To these words we may add that many Californians ready to support
the death penalty in the abstract may nevertheless prefer, as
polls have shown for some 20 years, a more swift, reliable, and
cost-effective system of justice based on LWOP+R. Please join us
in reaching out to these citizens, who can become our partners in
victory through SB 490 and the democratic choice it offers.

TO TAKE ACTION IN SUPPORT OF SB 490: CLICK HERE.

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Author of CA Death Penalty Law Has Change of Heart

Posted by Stefanie on July 21st, 2011

Los Angeles Times columnist and radio personality, Patt Morrison, interviewed Donald Heller, author of California's current death penalty statute, on July 16th about why he no longer supports capital punishment. In the interview Heller cites "the enormous toll it [takes] on people involved" including defense lawyers, judges and other players in the system, the high cost and the risk of executing the innocent.

Heller, a former prosecutor, only became vocal about his opposition to the death penalty after the execution of Thomas Thompson in 1998, a man Heller believes was innocent. 

He admits, "The way I look at it, what I created can and may already have resulted in the death of an innocent person. And that's pretty heavy."

"The thing I regret most that I cannot change -- except by what I do now -- was drafting the death penalty initiative," Heller laments. 

Read the full interview with Donald Heller




Running for Justice, Not From It!

Posted by Emily Hammagren, Guest Blogger on June 30th, 2011

I'm training to run a marathon (26.2 miles) in Walla Walla, Washington on October 16th, 2011 to raise funds for the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP) and increase awareness of the damage that the death penalty does to our society. While the Walla Walla run is small compared to those in big cities, the location is significant in that Walla Walla is the home of Washington's death row for men and the state's execution chamber.

Funds raised go towards WCADP's outreach and education campaigns throughout Washington state.

It's time for Washington to join the growing list of states like New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois that have realized that they can do better than offer victims' families the false promise of haling and closure from the death penalty.  This year, Washington was among a dozen states that held hearings on legislative bills to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.

I hope you will consider joining me in supporting a tremendous organization and an important mission. Please consider making a gift today.

Also, it's not too late to join me in Walla Walla to run the marathon, half marathon, 10K, or to cheer everyone on!

Posted in Blog, Resources | 2 comments



Sen. Leahy introduces Consular Notification Compliance Act

Posted by James Brockway on June 23rd, 2011

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has introduced an important new bill that will protect the rights of foreign nationals accused of capital crimes.  The proposed legislation, titled the Consular Notification Compliance Act (CNCA), will give federal courts jurisdiction to review cases of death row inmates who were not afforded access to their country of origin’s consulate after their arrest, a right which they are guaranteed under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which the U.S. has been a signatory since 1969.  The CNCA would also take steps to ensure that Court’s mandate that individuals are provided with consular access in future cases.  There are currently 133 foreign nationals on death rows in the U.S., only 53 of whom received proper notification.

What might at first glance appear to be a matter of arcane bureaucratic procedure has become a pressing issue, as Texas is scheduled to execute one of the men desperately in need of protection by the CNCA at the beginning of next month.  Humberto Leal Jr., a Mexican citizen, was sentenced to death for the 1994 rape and murder of 16-year-old Adria Sauceda.  Mr. Leal was not informed of his right to consular assistance until well after the legal proceedings against him had begun, and was consequently shackled with an unprepared public defender who was unable to challenge the numerous flaws in the scientific evidence and inconsistent testimony that was at the core of the prosecution’s case.  What makes his turn of events all the more tragic is that, according to Sandra Babcock, a Northwestern University Law Professor who is defending Mr. Leal on appeal, “this was an eminently defendable case, and I don’t think it would have been a capital case if he’d had decent trial counsel.”

While Mr. Leal’s travails have received the most public attention, he is far from alone in his predicament.  In 2004, Mexico brought a complaint against Texas in the International Court of Justice, alleging the more than 50 of its citizens were awaiting execution despite never having been informed of their Vienna Convention rights.  The ICJ ruled in Mexico’s favor, and ordered review of the cases in question.  Then-President George W. Bush wrote a presidential memorandum urging states to comply with the decision, but Texas insisted on going its own way, arguing that neither the international court nor the U.S. President had the authority to interfere in what they characterized as a state matter.  The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed, issuing a ruling in Medellin v. Texas that held that the treaty was unable to compel judicial review absent further legislative action by the congress.  Senator Leahy’s proposed bill would do just that.

If enacted, the CNCA would not only serve as a meaningful demonstration of the U.S.’s commitment to the rights of foreign prisoners and the larger framework of international law more generally, but would also provide immediate safety benefits to the millions of Americans living abroad.  Just last year, 6,600 U.S. citizens were arrested in foreign countries, and in many instances access to our Consulate was the key to their receiving adequate legal representation.  The longer we continue to flaunt our obligations under the Vienna Convention, the more likely it is that other nations will feel compelled to treat American nationals the same way.

While Senator Leahy has taken an important first step towards putting an end to injustices like those suffered by Humberto Leal, he could still be executed on July 7th before the CNCA advances.  Please take a moment to tell Governor Rick Perry that the execution should not proceed.




The Death Penalty is Prohibitively Expensive

Posted by Zac Stone on June 21st, 2011

A new study released this week puts the cost of maintaining the death penalty in California higher than it has ever been estimated in the past. Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell, the study's authors, calculated that California taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, and estimate the annual cost of pursuing executions to be $184 million more than pursuing life without parole.

The report, facilitated by previously unavailable records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, details exactly where and why seeking the death penalty costs so much more than life, as in the extra $200,000 spent per capital case on jury selection, the upwards of $300,000 spent on attorneys representing each inmate on appeal, and the more than $100,000 extra it costs to incarcerate a death row inmate within more secure housing (though other states have had success in "mainstreaming" death row inmates with the general population).

Few reasonable people would argue that $184 million is not a lot of money to be spending annually on just over 700 people, death row inmates or otherwise; the San Jose Mercury News deems it "fiscal insanity," and we tend to agree. Look at it one way and California has spent $308 million to execute each of the 13 men that have faced execution here since 1978.

The study's authors offer three options for ending the current cycle, which threatens to bankrupt the state (further) if not dramatically altered. The authors contend that another $85 million annually would fund California's death penalty system efficiently, while reducing the number of death-eligible crimes would potentially save taxpayers $55 million each year. By abolishing the death penalty altogether, Alarcon and Mitchell suggest California would save one billion dollars every five or six years.

There are simple ways to invest money that will reap great rewards in security for our communities. Early childhood education has proven time and again to have long-lasting effects on at-risk families. One decades-long study coming out of Chicago last week shows kids who attended an established preschool program there completed high school at higher rates and had a 28 percent lower incarceration rate than those who did not attend the program. Long-term programs that continue into second or third grade have an even more pronounced effect, with 36 percent fewer ending up in prison. Afterschool programs have similar effects, keeping at-risk kids off the streets during violent juvenile crime prime time, and allowing their parents to remain productive members of the workforce.

The programs that work most effectively at reducing crime and improving general wellbeing in our communities will have to wait for increased funding, however, until our leaders come to their senses and stop throwing more money than most of us can fathom at a system that seems, at best, designed to fail. If a $300 million execution doesn't meet Californians' threshold of "fiscal insanity," we shudder to think what does.
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Finding an Executioner in India

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on June 16th, 2011

A recent New York Times article discussed the difficulty one Indian state is having finding a hangman for an upcoming execution. With the president rejecting a last chance appeal for a murderer in the state of Assam, prison officials are now being forced to find an executioner. The only problem is that no one has answered the ad. With executions a rarity in India (the last in the entire country of 1.2 billion people was in 2004), very few certified hangmen can be found. Officials in Assam eventually began looking to neighboring states for help, but continued to be stymied. While the fate of the condemned man is up in the air pending the search, Indian defense lawyers are raising issues that find resonance with many of the flaws in the American system.

After a capital sentence is handed down in India, a mercy appeal goes before the country’s president. This appeal does not have to be decided within a set time frame. The petition for the condemned man in Assam sat pending on the desks of three presidents before it was finally rejected last month. This snail’s pace has led some defense lawyers to launch a counter intuitive argument: “The man was given capital punishment but not 14 years of imprisonment,” the condemned man’s lawyer argued. “For the last 12 years, you are virtually killing him every day.”

“You are keeping a man with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head,” another defense lawyer remarked. This argument contends that forcing someone to wait years or decades for their execution amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Ostensibly, this argument is calling for either the abolition of capital punishment or the streamlining of the process. Interestingly, the American death penalty faces many of the same problems the Indian system does.

In the United States, inmates often wait longer than 15 years before being executed, with some inmates having waited for more than 30 years. Applying the Indian argument, these inmates have been sentenced to death, not 30 years imprisonment and then death. While streamlining the process may sound appealing, other blog entries have noted the many instances where new exculpatory evidence comes to light and exonerates condemned inmates after years of incarceration.

The current lengthy appeals process serves a purpose – it ensures, among other things, that the condemned inmate indeed was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. Doing away with this process would dramatically increase the likelihood of an innocent person being executed. If we agree that a lengthy appeals process is oftentimes necessary, yet that such a wait accompanied by the uncertainty of death amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, perhaps the only ethical alternative is abolition.

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Humberto Leal's Execution Would be a Flagrant Violation of International Law

Posted by Stefanie on June 15th, 2011

Humberto Leal Jr. is slated to be executed by the state of Texas on July 7th.  His death will represent a grave miscarriage of justice as he received his sentence in clear violation of international law, which mandates that foreign nationals, like Mr. Leal, must be advised of their right to consular assistance after they have been arrested and charged.  

The absence of such consultation has had particularly devastating consequences for Mr. Leal, as he received grossly inadequate representation and could be executed for a crime that he may not have committed.

Read the rest of this post on Care2.

Sign the petition!

Firme la petición!

Posted in Blog, International | 2 comments



Remembering Norman Redlich and David Baldus

Posted by on June 15th, 2011

This week has seen the loss of two important figures in the fight against the death penalty. On Friday, Norman Redlich, the former dean of the New York University Law School and a pioneer in the use of pro bono defense for death row inmates, passed away from complications of Parkinson's disease; he was eighty five. Mr. Redlich was joined a few days later by seventy five year old David C. Baldus, a long time professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, and the main author of a series of influential studies regarding racial disparities in the application of the death penalty.

Mr. Redlich, a graduate of Williams College and Yale Law School, joined the faculty of NYU in 1960, and held the position of dean from 1974 to 1988. Mr. Redlich demonstrated heart-felt concern for the rights of indigent defendants from the beginning of his tenure at the law school, and began providing death row inmates at New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility with free legal representation, ultimately saving five men from the electric chair in the period between 1960 and 1963.

Mr. Redlich continued his commitment to public interest lawyering as head of the Law School, hiring renowned a capital defense attorney Anthony Amsterdam as a professor, and tasking him with creating a clinical education program for NYU students which would provide them with the skills and resources necessary for public service. Because of Dean Redlich's support, the program, while unprecedented at the time, has since been modeled by law schools nation wide, and has helped establish NYU as one of the country's premier centers for the teaching of public interest law, a position it holds to this day.

In addition to his considerable contributions to the fight against the death penalty, Mr. Redlich was a member of the Warren Commission tasked with investigating the death of President John F. Kennedy. In this capacity, Mr. Redlich took the lead in creating the "single bullet theory" which helped to confirm the case against Lee Harvey Oswald as the President's sole assassin. Mr. Redlich also served as New York's corporation counsel and provided legal representation for a number of people blacklisted for refusing to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Professor David Baldus was a pioneer in the use of cutting edge social science research to help make the case against capital punishment. Educated at Darmouth College, the University of Pittsburgh, and Yale Law School, Professor Baldus taught at the University of Iowa Law School from 1969 until his passing.

In 1983, Professor Baldus and his colleagues, Charles Pulaski and George Woodworth, undertook a massive study of the role of race in capital punishment, and their work's impact would reach all the way to our nation's highest court. Using data from over 2000 Georgia murder cases, their research looked into what, if any difference, race makes when it comes to capital punishment. They subjected their data to rigorous analysis, controlling for 230 different non-race variables that could have also had an effect on sentencing, and came to the conclusion that defendants charged with killing white victims were more than four times more likely to receive a death sentence than if their victim had been black. They also found that black defendants were almost two times more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts, and this disparity spiked even further when the victim also happened to be white.

This study ended up being at the heart of 1978 Supreme Court case McCleskey v. Kemp in which the Justices had to determine whether the consistent bias identified by Professor Baldus' work was sufficient to render Georgia's death penalty unconstitutional. In a controversial 5-4 decision, the Court rejected McCleskey's claim, and delivered an opinion that has been described as "the Dred Scott decision of our time."

In addition to his 1983 work, Professor Baldus was the author of two books on the death penalty, Statistical Proof of Discrimination and Equal Justice and the Death Penalty. He also served as Lieutenant in the Army Security Agency during the late 1950s.

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Pentobarbital Supply Now in Doubt

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on June 13th, 2011

Lundbeck, the only pharmaceutical company that supplies pentobarbital to the United States, has said that it will take steps to ensure that its drug will no longer be used for lethal injection. Lundbeck expressed moral opposition to the use of its product in executions. In a statement, the company declared that use of the drug in lethal injection proceedings "contradicts everything we are in business to do - provide therapies that improve people's lives." This news comes after a self-initiated industry boycott of sodium thiopental left states scrambling to find a replacement drug. Pentobarbital filled this void, but questions have been raised over the constitutionality of the drug. Little research has been conducted about any possible pain condemned inmates might have to endure with this new combination of drugs; inmates are paralyzed during the proceedings and cannot, therefore, physically express pain. If Lundbeck's boycott is effective, states will have to find yet another alternative drug.

Pentobarbital has been commonly used as an animal euthanasia drug. Recently there was a row over this issue in Texas when the ACLU published a report juxtaposing the state's regulation of veterinarians and prison officials: "Veterinarians in Texas are prohibited from using the combination of drugs that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has deemed suitable for the execution of human beings," the report finds. The paper also details the numerous medical and professional qualifications veterinarians must have before they are allowed to euthanize animals. Prison officials, however, are granted a tremendous amount of discretion and autonomy when planning and administering a lethal injection execution. The report concludes that "it is no exaggeration to say that Texas regulates the euthanasia of reptiles more strictly than the execution of human beings."

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Ohio Governor Commutes Sentence of Innocent Man

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on June 9th, 2011

Yesterday, Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted the death sentence of Shawn Hawkins to life without the possibility of parole.  The Governor’s decision follows last month’s unanimous recommendation for clemency by the Ohio Parole Board.  Mr. Hawkins was sentenced to die for the 1989 murders of teenagers Terrence Richard and Diamond Marteen in Mount Healthy, Ohio.  Mr. Hawkins has persistently and vigorously maintained his innocence.

Kasich’s commutation is his first since taking office in January, and the Republican Governor was careful to point out that his decision was not meant to relieve Hawkins of responsibility for his alleged crimes.  Instead, the Governor decided that the “precise details of [Mr. Hawkins] role are frustratingly unclear to the point that Ohio shouldn't deliver the ultimate penalty in this case."  Gov. Kasich went out his way to emphasize that he had no doubt that Mr. Hawkins played some “material role” in the crime, and seemed satisfied that a life sentence would be a sufficiently harsh punishment given the ambiguities surrounding the case.

While it is undoubtedly great news to hear that Mr. Hawkins life will be spared, Governor Kasich’s decision to stop short of a full pardon is troubling given that the evidence points strongly towards Mr. Hawkins’ actual innocence.  Unfortunately, a combination of inadequate representation and incomplete investigation of other potential suspects has already forced Shawn Hawkins to spend half his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

The most significant problem with the case against Shawn Hawkins concerns Henry Brown, the state’s one eyewitness to the crime.  Since Mr. Hawkins’ original arrest, Mr. Brown has repeatedly altered elements of his testimony, providing police with wildly differing, and frequently contradictory, accounts of the murders.  Mr. Brown was given full immunity in exchange for his agreement to testify against Mr. Hawkins, though it is looking more and more like the police made the wrong deal: a year after his original testimony, Brown committed an armed robbery eerily similar to the one that took the lives of Mr. Richard and Mr. Marteen, and is currently serving four to seven years for aggravated robbery.  In taking the word of Mr. Brown, the state also willfully ignored testimony from several alibi witnesses who indicated Mr. Hawkins was with them at the time of the crime, and also chose to not follow several leads indicating there were two other men present at the crime scene.  

Other oversights include the police’s ‘loss’ of all the notes they took during their interrogation of Mr. Hawkins, as well as the reliance on dubious forensic science to link one of his finger prints to the crime, even though the prosecution has no ability to prove when the print was left and Mr. Hawkins freely admits he was in the victims’ car earlier, when they were both alive.

Given all of these issues, it is fair to ask how Mr. Hawkins was convicted in the first place.  The answer to that question lies with Mr. Hawkins’ trial lawyer, whose overconfidence and lack of preparation caused him to make a series of tactical errors which culminated in a death sentence for his client.  These missteps included failure to investigate many of the discrepancies discussed above, making Mr. Hawkins testify in his own defense, and then aggressively antagonizing the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial because of his frustration with their guilty verdict.  Shawn has been paying for these mistakes for over twenty years, and this week’s commutation must seem like rather weak compensation given the magnitude of his attorney’s negligence.  

While Shawn Hawkins no longer faces a death sentence, he still has to contend with spending the rest of his life in prison despite the severe doubts surrounding his guilt.  In some ways, his new sentence of life without the possibility of parole will make seeking his release more difficult, as the state will no longer be obligated to help finance his appeals, and the Governor may be less likely to grant a pardon after having already made what he views as a compromise.  Mr. Hawkins is not alone in facing this problem, as last year’s commutation of the sentence of Kevin Keith proves.  Like Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Keith had a strong claim of actual innocence which was met with commutation by Ohio’s then-Governor, Ted Strickland.  For the past year, Mr. Keith has been struggling to secure further advances in his case, though no relief seems to be insight for the foreseeable future.  

Fortunately for Mr. Hawkins, he seems to have a network of supporters who are dedicated to seeing that "Shawn is someday a free man”.  As his appellate attorney, Anthony G. Covatta, said after Governor Kasich’s decision, “The struggle continues. The dream will never die."  We can only hope that he is right.

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A Turning Point?

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on June 1st, 2011

In recent weeks we have been documenting the increasing level of difficulty prisons are having procuring sodium thiopental, a drug used in lethal injection proceedings. After the last US supplier stopped production of the execution drug on moral grounds, states have had to turn to overseas providers, including pharmaceutical companies in Italy, Germany, Taiwan, the UK, and India to provide the drug. In order to import the drug, however, many states circumvented federal law by not declaring the shipments to the DEA. It seems that this crisis is reaching a critical point. A previous blog post detailed the DEA’s seizure of Georgia’s stockpile of sodium thiopental after the state had illegally imported the drug from an overseas supplier. Recently, however, the DEA has widened the scope of its probe into these shipments, and has now seized state stockpiles from Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Nebraska, and South Dakota have also received shipments of sodium thiopental from overseas providers, but their stockpiles were not raided.

The revelation that these states illegally obtained their sodium thiopental has sparked outrage in death penalty watchdog groups. Natasha Minsker, the Death Penalty Policy Director for the ACLU of California, commented on the implications of this news: “The DEA records demonstrate that Arizona and other states broke the law. We cannot understand why the DEA has failed to act but has allowed the states to keep these illegal and dangerous drugs. When state officials break the law in order to carry out an execution, it makes a mockery of our justice system and puts us all at risk. State and federal officials must follow and enforce the law—that’s their duty and what the public expects and deserves.” Ms. Minsker filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the DEA and received the documents that suggested inconsistencies between the publicly known shipment records and the actual supplies of the drugs.

From here, it’s hard to tell where this story might lead. In response to the shortage of sodium thiopental, one state adopted a new lethal injection protocol, where inmates are executed with a single drug that has normally been reserved for animal euthanasia. If more states follow suit and adopt a similar procedure, there might be room for a legal challenge to this method of execution, potentially resulting in increased delays while the Courts study whether or not the single drug method violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. If this is the case, such a review might cause another de facto moratorium similar to the one currently in effect in California. 

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Juries Lead Pennsylvania Away From Capital Punishment

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on June 1st, 2011

With citizens across the country taking active efforts to end capital punishment, progress is being made in Pennsylvania, though it has not come via the typical legislative jockeying and heated policy debate.  Instead, the state’s jurors are quietly working to make Pennsylvania, which still has the death penalty on its books, abolitionist in practice, as they have become increasingly unwilling to hand out death sentences in capital murder cases.

As noted in a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, juries have handed down death sentences in only 3% of roughly 2,000 eligible cases since 2007, resulting in only eight additions to death row in that time.  While its population of 215 gives Pennsylvania the fourth largest death row in the country, most of that number have been awaiting execution for decades, as only three people have been executed since capital punishment’s reinstatement in 1978, and no sentences have been carried out since 1999.

While it is difficult to know how much the recent decrease in capital convictions has to do with the system’s perceived lack of credibility, it does seem to be the case that jurors are comfortable with dispensing sentences of life with out parole.  Given how rarely used and slow-moving Pennsylvania’s death penalty is, it is hard to argue with this decision, as life achieves the same goals as capital punishment while sparing the enormous investment of resources that goes into what is often a decade’s long appeals process.   

While juries are producing change from behind the scenes, the public debate over Pennsylvania’s death penalty has begun to pick up as well.  State Senator Stewart Greenleaf has sponsored a proposal to begin a study commission that will look into the costs associated with the policy.  This is a significant first step as information on Pennsylvania’s death penalty is fairly difficult to obtain, and forcing officials to come out in the open will shine a light on the system which should only galvanize further reforms.  Senator Greenleaf also plans to sponsor legislation that would eliminate the 60 day time limit placed on finding new, non-DNA evidence, for post-conviction appeals, thereby allowing for prisoners with claims of actual innocence to have a fair chance to prove their claims in court, instead of having them dismissed on banal technicalities.

Amongst the more prominent supporters of these efforts is former Governor, and long time death penalty proponent, Ed Rendell, who on his last day in office challenged the legislature to either take concrete steps to make the death penalty an effective law enforcement tool, or abandon it all together.  According to Governor Rendell, the interminable delays associated with the penalty eviscerate its deterrent effects, and it is unclear if such problems are even fixable.

Taken together, these developments should give us hope that Pennsylvania is beginning to look seriously at replacing the death penalty with more effective alternatives.  Moreover, its juries’ increased preference for life without parole points to a promising trend of reduced capital sentencing which should make it that much easier to end the death penalty once in for all, while in the mean time preventing further bloating of already over-crowded death rows across the country.

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Juries' Lack of Mental Health Knowledge Puts the Intellectually Disabled at Risk

Posted by Zac Stone on May 27th, 2011

The results of a study published last year in the Law & Psychology Review (pdf) on juror perceptions of intellectual disability should surprise no one, yet the study's implications in capital trials are grave. Mental health workers' views on intellectual disability - referred to in the study as mental retardation, a term that is losing popularity, but still medically accurate and ingrained in law - and those views of jurors differ greatly, with those in the mental health field allowing a broader definition of disability based on eight areas of functioning.

The study found that jurors, presumably a group of folks representative of the American populace (in this case they came from a suburban area in a southeastern state), vastly underestimate the functional abilities of people with intellectual disabilities, when asked to identify characteristics that might suggest mental retardation, as compared to the estimations of mental health professionals.

Though the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia prohibits the execution of a mentally retarded person, the court did not define mental retardation, implying that states' death penalty statutes should conform to the diagnostic criteria put forth by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the American Psychiatric Association. In practice, unfortunately, while experts in the mental health field testify and offer their opinions in court, it is not a trained professional who ultimately measures a defendant's mental abilities, but a group of strangers from the defendant's community, whom the study authors refer to as "fact-finders."

The study's authors expected jurors to somewhat accurately measure three areas of functioning - independent living, school performance, and the ability to read and write - as they relate to intellectual disability. These are three signs that most laymen identify as being indicative of intellectual disability, but as the study found, jurors don't have a great idea of how capable the intellectually disabled are of living on their own in society, they tend to rely too heavily on school performance and reading and writing ability, and they misunderstand the significance of other factors.

Jurors are also reluctant to attribute characteristics to mental retardation or intellectual disability unless they "suggest extremely severe impairment," fitting the paradigm that many Americans have built around intellectual disability in which they imagine a person wholly dependant on others to survive. For instance, jurors were willing to connect a person's history of living in state hospitals with mental retardation, but largely they did not believe that a person with an intellectual disability could live in an apartment alone with only occasional visits from a social worker, while mental health workers, with more experience around the intellectually disabled, were quick to make the connection. Jurors also saw drug use and sexual activity as indicators that a person was intellectually capable, while mental health workers allowed for more nuance in these areas, and pointed to a person's romantic involvement in relationships as a better indicator of intellectual ability.

One of the study's key findings was that jurors strongly expect the intellectually disabled to be unaware of or unable to understand the wrongfulness of their actions, and jurors were more willing to attribute criminal behavior to a defendant's disability in such cases than if the defendant expressed an understanding of the crime. Those in the mental health field know, however, that those with milder cases of intellectual disability, who tend to make up the majority of intellectually disabled capital defendants, often can understand some implications of their crime, while not fully respecting the gravity.

In death penalty trials, in which juries ultimately decide if a defendant is mentally capable of being punished by death, the repercussions of this study, assuming the results are reproducible and applicable to juries elsewhere, are not to be underestimated.

Jurors who believe the intellectually disabled must be relegated to group homes or state hospitals, or that they cannot be sexually active, consume drugs, or attend public school, will not be able to effectively enforce the law of the land, in this case the Supreme Court's Atkins decision prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled. While it is expected that experts in any given field will have a better understanding of that field, as mental health workers better understand intellectual disability, the average American's level of ignorance on this topic makes clear that attorneys in capital cases must better prepare jurors to make the type of decision they have been tasked with - one of life or death.




Danish Drug-Maker's Death Penalty Dilemma

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on May 17th, 2011

Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck Inc. is currently faced with a significant ethical, and financial, dilemma, as it is the only manufacturer of pentobarbital which sells the drug to the U.S. where it has recently been used as an execution drug. While the company officially opposes this use for the short-acting barbiturate, it maintains that it has little control over what happens to the product after it is in the hands of American wholesalers, who have demonstrated a willingness to ignore the company's wishes and sell the drug to a number of states' Departments of Corrections.

Lundbeck has attempted to take some action, calling on prisons in eleven states to not use the drug as such behavior would fly in the face of the company's mission to provide the world with life saving technologies. Sadly, these efforts have so far fallen on deaf ears, as none of these prisons have responded to Lunbeck's letters, and Virginia has recently decided to join Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas (amongst others) in using the drug in its execution procedure.

Lundbeck finds itself in this precarious position largely because of a recent shortage of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic that had, until recently, been an ingredient in 35 of the 36 death penalty states' lethal injection cocktails. Hospira Inc., the only manufacturer of thiopental, began to run out of the drug in the summer of 2010, and recently stopped producing it altogether after Italy (where Hospira's plant is located) threatened legal action if the medication continued to be used to put people to death. Italy, like Denmark and all other EU member-states, has abolished capital punishment, and has decided to be active in opposing the punishment world wide.

While it is unclear if Denmark will take similar measures to ensure Lundbeck gets out of the execution business, some of the company's major investors are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Major Danish investment fund Unipension unloaded 5.4 million Euros worth of shares last Friday, citing the company's unwillingness to "engage in a genuine dialogue" about how they planned to prevent pentobarbital from being used in executions. ATP, Denmark's largest pension investor, is considering following suit, as it also has serious questions about the strength of Lundbeck's commitment.

London based non-profit, Reprieve, has been actively pressuring Lundbeck to act, and so far has been very disappointed with the company's efforts, most recently pointing to the corporation's failure to file brief's opposing the drug's usage in an impending Alabama execution. As Reprieve investigator Maya Foa put it, "It is hard to see why Lundbeck would not take this straightforward opportunity which could help to save a life…There is still time for Lundbeck to change their mind and take this simple step. If they continue to refuse, their company 'code of ethics' will not be worth the paper it's printed on."

While it is understandable that Lundbeck is reluctant to give up on its corner on the U.S. pentobarbital market, it is imperative that the company live up to its obligation as a maker of medicine, and does everything in its reach to ensure that its products are used only to heal. Until it does so, we should applaud the efforts of investors to hold Lundbeck accountable, as it may be the case that the company will be unwilling to make changes until its moral commitments are in alignment with its financial best interest.

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Is the Death Penalty a Deterrent?

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on May 16th, 2011

Does capital punishment work? This question has been the topic of a hot debate for years. At the core of this discussion are quantitative analysts from academia. Using complex econometric methods, these mathematicians publish studies analyzing murder and execution rates over time, and then estimate how many innocent lives are saved from the deterrent effect of each execution.

In 2007, for example, Michael Summers and Roy Adler published a story in the Wall Street Journal claiming that the deterrent effect of each execution eventually saves 74 innocent people from being murdered. The study noticed a negative correlation between murders and executions - when the number of executions increased, the number of murders decreased.

These findings heavily support the theory of deterrence. Yet a recent study has called the article's conclusion into question. Dr. Gebhard Kirchgaessne from the Swiss Institute for International Economics and Applied Economic Research is working on a research paper demonstrating how easy it can be for economists to manipulate murder and execution data in order to support any agenda: "One can find any result demanded; this simple model does not allow for robust results" (8).

To prove this point, Dr. Kirchgaessne derives somewhat comical results from the economists' equations. The results are so unreliable that the same model can be used to support both points of view. Further suggesting that manipulation of data runs rampant in deterrence economics is the fact that even when long-run data suggest a certain trend (ie that the death penalty is a deterrent), there are still sub-periods within that sample that contradict the claim.

The author suggests that this fact should bring heightened scrutiny to any paper trying to empirically prove or disprove a deterrent effect of the death penalty: "Everybody who wants to claim that this negative correlation represents a causal relation has to provide a convincing explanation for the existence of sub-periods showing the opposite (causal) relation" (7).

Dr. Kirchgaessne concludes that "a critical and cautious examination of these results leads to the conviction that we cannot draw any strong conclusions. While there is some evidence that a deterrent effect might exist, it is too fragile to be certain" (18). He adds that the various claims that each execution prevents X number of future homicides are so dubious - given the unreliability of the testing mechanism - that they should not be given any serious weight in policy discussions.

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Take A Stand Against the Death Penalty

Posted by Zac Stone on May 10th, 2011

The National Library of France has introduced an interactive exhibit that allows library-goers to literally stand in the way of an execution. The video speaks for itself, so without futher ado…

Abolition from Marcel on Vimeo.

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Rising use of Mitigation Defense Linked to Fewer Death Sentences in Texas

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on May 9th, 2011

Jeffrey Toobin recently published an article in the New Yorker about the increasing movement in Texas to emphasize mitigating factors during the sentencing phase of death penalty trials. Specifically, Toobin follows the work of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center, an organization specializing in researching biographical mitigating evidence for defense teams in capital cases. When the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s, the Supreme Court stipulated that mandatory death sentences were unconstitutional, and insisted that a bifurcated trial take place, where first the guilt or innocence of the defendant is ascertained, and then the sentence is determined.

The jury has essentially unlimited discretion to weigh virtually any mitigating factors during the sentencing phase – past criminal history, mental illness, low IQ, combat experience, abusive upbringing, poverty, etc. Thus, a strong mitigation defense can literally make a life or death difference for the defendant. In his article, Toobin notes that the number of new death sentences in Texas has been down considerably after GRACE began its campaign. Assuming that these two events have at least some causal relationship, the effect that this newfound emphasis on mitigation has had on the number of death sentences in Texas raises some serious questions about the general fairness of the death penalty.

When it declared a moratorium on the death penalty in the 1970s, the Supreme Court was primarily concerned that the death penalty was arbitrarily and capriciously imposed. Many of the changes made to the death penalty over the years have been designed to fix this problem. Yet even with all these changes, highly arbitrary factors – such as geography, the disposition of the District Attorney, and the gamble that a small sample size of 12 citizens will actually be a representative cross-section of society – still reign supreme when it comes to death sentences. Toobin points out in his article, for instance, that if Harris County, Texas, were an independent state, it would trail only the rest of Texas in the number of death sentences handed down in the country. Similarly, in California, 85% of all death sentences come from a mere 17% of the state’s counties.

This arbitrariness also extends to the realm of mitigation defense. Consider, for instance, the case of Manuel Babbitt. In 1980, Babbitt killed an elderly Sacramento, California, resident in her home. Soon thereafter Babbitt’s brother turned him into police after finding him in possession of some of the victim’s property. Babbitt was a Vietnam War combat veteran who fought in the 77-day siege of Khe Sahn, oftentimes referred to as the most savage battle in the war. Babbitt had only a 7th grade education and had to get help from a recruiter to pass the entrance test into the Army. During Khe Sahn, Babbitt was wounded in the skull by pieces of shrapnel, an injury for which he was later awarded the Purple Heart.

After serving a second combat tour in Vietnam, Babbitt returned home and began a long spree of escalating criminal activity that eventually led to his detention at the Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts – a hospital for the criminally insane, where Babbitt was declared mentally ill. During his stay at the hospital, Babbitt attempted suicide three times. After his release, he degenerated further until his eventual murder conviction in 1980 and execution in 1999. Babbitt did not have access to a mitigation specialist similar to GRACE. Instead, Babbitt had an alcoholic public defender who would drink in court. Had Babbitt’s defense team discussed his history of post traumatic stress disorder and mental illness, perhaps the jury would have been inclined spare him death.

While the increasing use of the mitigation defense had resulted in fewer death sentences, it still leaves some unsettling questions about the arbitrariness of capital punishment in the United States. If it is assumed that at least some condemned inmates – Manuel Babbitt, for instance – would have been spared death had they been provided with a robust mitigation defense, then we can add one more variable to the legal lottery that decides who lives and who dies. When geography and the personal views of the local district attorney are life and death factors for defendants, and if taking 30 minutes to discuss one’s biography is enough to save oneself from death, as is strongly suggested by the correlation discussed in Toobin’s article, then capital punishment is still being arbitrarily and capriciously imposed in the Unites States.

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Help End Connecticut's Death Penalty!

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on May 5th, 2011

As active death penalty opponents are likely to be aware, it is becoming increasingly likely that Connecticut will become the seventeenth state to abolish the death penalty. Repeal legislation has made its way through the state's joint Judiciary Committee, and state senators will soon have an opportunity to vote on this historic legislation. While the vote is likely to be close, commentators believe the bill will pass, and Governor Dan Malloy has said he will sign the legislation if and when it reaches his desk.

As exciting as this news is, this will not be the first time that Connecticut has gotten close to abolition, as a 2009 repeal bill passed both houses only to be vetoed by then Governor M. Jodi Rell. Once again, it appears as though the death penalty will no go away without a fight, as proponents (most notably Dr. William Petit, Jr. whose family was killed in a grizzly 2007 home invasion) have been campaigning aggressively against the bill.

Interestingly, some of the legislation's most vocal supporters have, like Dr. Petit, lost family members to violent crime. In an open letter to Connecticut's legislature, a coalition of 76 co-victims urges for end to capital punishment, arguing that "rather than preventing violence, [the death penalty] only perpetuates it and inflicts further pain on survivors." Citing the incredibly lengthy and emotionally devastating appeals process, as well as the policy's tendency to unfairly elevate, as more heinous, some murders over others, the letter's drafters have put together an articulate plea and heartbreaking call to put an end to this cycle of killing.

While it is fortunately only a very small number of us who can truly understand these co-victims perspective, it falls on all of us to support them in ensuring that this historic legislation passes. Please take a moment to take action and play, however small, a role in ending this broken system before it claims any more lives.

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Actual death penalty abolition would be a lot cheaper than de facto moratorium

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on May 4th, 2011

After Governor Brown called off the construction of a new $356 million death row facility earlier this week, the Warden of San Quentin suggested that, at the earliest, it might be another year before the state beings executing inmates again. There have been no executions in California since 2006, when Judge Jeremy Fogel declared the moratorium. Fogel felt there was enough merit to concerns that the state’s lethal injection procedures might cause inmates unnecessary pain, and would thus be in violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Since that time the state has changed its procedure to better comport with Fogel’s demands. The Warden, however, wants time to train a new team of 20 executioners – a task that will likely take over a year. This move will extend the state’s de facto moratorium into its sixth year.

The move will also raise some questions about California’s fiscal priorities. For at least six years, California’s taxpayers will have been footing the bill for a death row that doesn’t execute anyone. It would be far cheaper for the state to simply make things official and become a death penalty free state. Since 1978, only 13 inmates on California’s death row have been executed, compared with the 78 deaths from other causes. Taking the program’s budget over the past 33 years into account, some simple arithmetic shows that California taxpayers have spent approximately $250m on each execution. When state universities are doubling tuition, teachers are being laid off, and police departments being downsized to the point where they can only respond to certain 911 calls, does it really make sense to drop this much money on a system that might, without hyperbole, actually be the most inefficient government-run program in the country?




48 Hours Mystery Details Wrongful Death Sentence of Anthony Graves

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on May 2nd, 2011

48 Hours Mystery recently aired a new video detailing the story of Anthony Graves, a Texas man who was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. After his wrongful conviction, Graves spent 18 years of his life awaiting execution on death row. The video highlights two regular problems in death penalty cases – innocence and prosecutorial misconduct.

After a family of six was murdered in 1992, investigators refused to believe that the admitted murderer, Robert Carter, acted alone. Investigators pressed Carter to divulge the name of his supposed accomplice, and he eventually implicated Anthony Graves. Before testifying against Graves in court, Carter privately recanted his story, so the prosecution decided to cut a deal: If Carter testified, the prosecution would not ask about his wife’s involvement. Carter acquiesced.

Furthermore, when Graves’s girlfriend was about to testify that Graves had spent the entire night of the murder at home with her, the prosecutor made a veiled threat that if she did testify, she too might be implicated in the murder. At the last minute she decided not to testify. “They put him in jail […] on nothing,” she said, “what's to stop them from putting me in jail on nothing?”

The prosecution, of course, failed to divulge any of this information to the defense. Graves was found guilty and was sentenced to death.

While he was awaiting execution on death row, Robert Carter repeatedly told fellow prisoners that Anthony Graves played no part in the murder. Furthermore, moments before being executed in 2000, Carter said as his final statement, “It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court."

Despite this information, Graves hopelessly remained on death row until a group of journalism students at St. Thomas University began investigating the case: "We weren't out to prove anyone innocent. That was not our goal. Our goal was just to find out the truth.” Over time, these students began to reveal the prosecution’s unorthodox methods, and soon the case against Graves crumbled. Due in large part to these revelations, Graves’s case was eventually reversed by an appellate court.

After he was freed from death row, however, Graves had to spend the next four years in jail awaiting his retrial. The new prosecutor, with a 19-0 record in her previous death penalty cases, eventually met with Graves’s defense team and told them that she had no evidence that Graves was even remotely involved in the murder, and that she was dropping the charges: “This guy's innocent - not just not guilty, but innocent."

Texas stole 18 prime years of a man’s life and destroyed his family’s reputation. "I wanted people to know that my mother didn't raise a murderer. My mother raised a good son. That meant something to me." Texas also came tantalizingly close to executing an innocent man. At the very least this case demonstrates that with our current system, mistakes still happen – our system is clearly flawed, and when the stakes are so high that lives hang in the balance, a flawed system is unacceptable.

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Governor Brown Puts Kibosh on New Death Row

Posted by Zac Stone, Guest Blogger on May 2nd, 2011

Those involved in the movement to abolish the death penalty in California might have heard that the state could save a billion dollars over the next five years by halting the archaic practice. Last Thursday, Governor Jerry Brown took a step toward making that a reality by cancelling plans to build a shiny new death row at San Quentin State Prison that would have housed an absurd 1,152 inmates, as opposed to the current 700+, and stood to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a statement about his decision, Gov. Brown said, "At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the state of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals."

"California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates. It would be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us."

While condemned inmates deserve not to live in squalor, improvements can be made to the existing death row infrastructure without splurging in an economic downturn on facilities aimed ultimately at taking life. Money spent on education and law enforcement will go further toward lowering crime and keeping more people out of the cycle of violence that surrounds death row inmates and their families.

The state had budgeted $356 million for the new death row facilities at San Quentin, of which $20 million has already been spent since 2003 on designing and planning. State auditors released projections in 2008 that put the cost closer to $1.6 billion over 20 years. Realistically, cost projections on big construction projects are almost always lower than their ultimate expense to taxpayers.

Still, construction does not make up the bulk of the expenses related to the death penalty, even really expensive construction projects. The ACLU has estimated (pdf) that each year, keeping death-sentenced inmates separate from the general prison population costs California an extra $90,000 per inmate, more than $60 million annually. Another roughly $60 million is spent each year on capital prosecution and defense.

Many of these costs cannot be reduced without running the risk of imprisoning or executing an innocent person. All of these costs could be reduced to a pittance in comparison if the death penalty were replaced with life without parole, and in fact, new polling data (pdf) by David Binder Research shows Californians are strongly in support of just that - 63 percent of Californians are in favor of the governor converting all death sentences to life without the chance of parole, with a mere 28 percent opposed to the idea. Such a move would free up funds for public education and law enforcement without releasing a single inmate, and it even has the benefit of being supported by solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and particularly independent voters.

Having taken this important initial step of nixing the new death row, Gov. Brown must continue to save the state's precious resources by commuting the sentences of California's more than 700 death row inmates to life without parole. With Californians and others ever more willing to survive without the outdated punishment, it's a no-brainer that will save money and human lives.

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Marie Deans, Ardent Abolitionist, Leaves Giant Shoes to Fill

Posted by Zac Stone on April 29th, 2011
Deans with Giarratano after a hard-fought battle for clemency

Marie Deans, a death penalty abolition activist and founder of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (a founding partner of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty), died on April 15, 2011, at the age of 70. Following the murder of her mother-in-law by an escaped prisoner in the early '70s, Deans worked tirelessly for the rights of death row inmates, and formed close bonds with the men she helped and their families. Deans had a particularly close relationship with Joe Giarratano, whose death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in 1991 due in large part to Deans' hard work on his behalf.

Giarratano was convicted after a 1979 capital trial in Norfolk, Virginia, that lasted all of four hours. He was sentenced to death for the double murder of Toni and Michelle Kline, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, including erroneous confessions, police coercion, and strong physical evidence implicating another as yet unidentified suspect. After a hard-fought campaign by Deans, then-Governor Douglas Wilder commuted Giarratano's sentence a mere 36 hours before he was to be executed (it may be noted that Virginia is not a death penalty retentionist state that maintains long delays between sentencing and execution). Politics would keep Giarratano in prison to this day, but Marie Deans would keep him active; Joe was a major player in the 1990s campaign for clemency of his fellow inmate Earl Washington Jr., who was granted clemency and ultimately received a pardon after DNA tests proved his innocence.

DPF President Mike Farrell joined Joe Giarratano's campaign for clemency at the behest of Marie Deans in the 1980s, when she was in charge of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons. Mike has previously heaped praise upon Deans, writing:

"An ardent abolitionist, Marie is an angel of mercy to the men on Virginia's death row. She offered counseling, advice, a willing ear and any kind of help she could bring to ease their plight. I knew her as a determined advocate who would not rest until the condemned had fully realized every benefit that was guaranteed them by law or by God, whether those in authority liked it or not. And many did not."

"Working with Joe and the rest of the men on death row was beyond a calling for Marie, it was a way to deal with what she saw as a terrible social wrong. Seeing the value in those whom the state had dehumanized, in cases like Giarratano's digging it out of a reluctant heap of self-hatred, was as natural to her as breathing, as much a part of being a member of society as was treating one's neighbor with respect. And despite the contempt many in the system felt for the inmates, Marie's simple decency and fundamental honesty won her many admirers, even a few converts."

An indefatigable advocate for the civil rights of society's most vulnerable, Deans will be remembered among death penalty abolitionists not only for her hard work, but her humanity, her compassion. Joe Giarratano still sits in a Viriginia prison for a crime he did not commit, and he just lost his most fervent supporter and a close friend. The abolition movement has lost a strong voice. The work of Marie Deans must continue for the sake of the innocent and for all Americans vulnerable to the justice system, but it won't happen on its own.

For more information about Joe, please visit the website of his campaign for clemency; letters of support and condolence can be sent to Joseph Giarratano, #1027820, Wallens Ridge State Prison, PO Box 759, Big Stone Gap, VA, 24219. Death Penalty Focus is accepting donations in Marie's memory.

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Dear Jerry Brown, Please Cut the Death Penalty

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on April 28th, 2011

Dear Governor Brown,

In the opening months of his first term, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where he argued that:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." (April 16, 1953)

While President Eisenhower was speaking to the problem of excessive national and global defense spending, his words are still relevant today as California faces the challenge of balancing public safety against the need to provide all of its citizens with essential services. The "theft" we face today, however, does not occur at the barrel of a gun, but instead can be found in the fiscal and moral disaster of a futile, extravagantly expensive, and socially divisive quagmire which is our broken death penalty system.

Today, a strong, smart, and effective law enforcement and criminal justice system is more incumbent than ever. Such a system must not only provide our police and corrections officers with the support they deserve and require, but must also integrate itself with our social service and mental health systems in order to "connect the dots," thereby preventing, as well as solving and punishing, violent crimes.

When such preventative measures tragically fail, society has an obligation to crime victims and their families. We must do everything in our power to ensure that families are not trapped in an unresponsive legal system, and are instead provided a helping hand on the long road to healing.

Sadly, building such a system is close to impossible as long as we are committed to capital punishment.

Each year, according to a 2008 study by the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, our State spends at least $137 million on the death penalty. By replacing this punishment with permanent imprisonment, and scrapping the $400 million dollar plans for a "new and improved" Death Row, we could save $1 billion over the next five years. In doing so, we would have also replaced an arbitrarily applied and incredibly inefficient punishment with a swift, certain, and uniform penalty for our most heinous murders.

Californians as diverse as self-styled "hanging judge" Donald A. McCartin of the Superior Court of Orange County, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti of Los Angeles County, and former Warden Jeanne Woodford of San Quentin Prison have all learned from their experience in seeking, imposing, and actually carrying out death sentences that permanent imprisonment is a better and more fiscally viable choice.

And families of murder victims, like Judy Kerr and the California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, are joining their voices to the mounting chorus for a more balanced and dignified system of justice, sharing their own unique experiences and wisdom obtained at an unimaginable price. We would do well to pay attention to their perspective as it is in their name that we carry out executions.

While only voters can change the law, as Governor, you hold the awesome and indeed sacred power of clemency, which you can use to not only stop the "theft" of resources from Californian families who desperately need them, but also to exercise the craft of leadership by bringing us together in the common pursuit of justice for victims of crime and for society at large.

As your decades of public service have undoubtedly taught you, the death penalty has served as a wedge issue in California politics, dividing voters and communities, and distracting us from more constructive and cost-effective alternatives.

Fortunately, more and more Californians -- indeed a powerful majority, to judge by one recent scientific survey -- are asking for swift, severe, and thrifty alternatives to a system where over 700 men and women are confined for decades on Death Row, when they could be serving sentences of permanent imprisonment at far less cost to society, and indeed be making restitution for their crimes.

While this 2009 survey showed that 66% of Californians polled were in favor of "the death penalty" in the abstract, when offered the option of life imprisonment without parole plus restitution to the families of the victims, only 26% continued to support capital punishment.

Since California's 1977 and 1978 capital murder statutes were enacted, the law has provided a mandatory penalty of permanent imprisonment for any death eligible crime. It is noteworthy that while only 13 prisoners have been executed under these statutes, more than 700 are now on Death Row. Over 3000 prisoners have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Of these thousands of prisoners, only a handful have been released - and this was only after they were shown to be actually innocent of the crimes for which they were incarcerated!

The fact that such cases are rare reflects the skill and determination of our peace officers, prosecutors, jurors and judges, who are committed to convicting the guilty while taking care always to protect and acquit the innocent. The fact that mistakes do happen, however, is a sobering reminder that we are only human, and that permanent imprisonment, unlike execution, allows room for us to repair miscarriages of justice when they are discovered.

As your father, Governor Pat Brown, discussed in his memoir Public Justice, Private Mercy: A Governor's Education on Death Row, there was sometimes an agonizing ethical conflict between doing what he felt was just in deciding the issue of life or death for a condemned prisoner, and doing what he felt was necessary to preserve his ability to effectively serve the people of California.

Today, however, it seems as though these two imperatives are more in line than in conflict. In the California of 2011, governing effectively means taking control of the budget, and husbanding resources to serve those "who are not fed" or "are not clothed." To do this, we must address the imperatives of excellence in education and preeminence in technological innovation.

At the same time, we need a system of law enforcement and justice which can protect our citizens and communities, and bring prompt and responsive justice for victims of crime and their families.

To meet these goals, the draining of our time and money into the bottomless sinkhole of a broken and unfixable death penalty system simply must be stopped, and these resources need to be redirected to proven and effective law enforcement efforts and victims' services which can stem the tide of criminal violence while bringing us all together in the quest for a more just, secure, and prosperous society.

At this hour of crisis, Californians need to find common ground. The policy of permanent imprisonment provides it: it means swift punishment for criminals who will die in prison, and timely resolution of criminal cases so that the families of murder victims can move on without having their wounds reopened by decades of appeals addressing the unique issues and enormities raised by capital punishment.

Polling suggests that permanent imprisonment plus restitution can command strong majority support, uniting supporters and opponents of the death penalty. When invited to consider the alternatives, citizens and voters want to be both tough and smart on crime.

And in today's budget crisis, we can afford nothing less.

While only the voters of California can complete the process of legal reform and streamlining through an initiative, you are in a position, with one telling stroke of your pen, to move over 700 prisoners from an exorbitantly expensive residence on Death Row to more thrifty accommodations where they will meet the same fate that they were likely to receive on the row, a natural death in prison.

And thus, without releasing a single prisoner, you may at once save Californians a billion dollars over the next five years, and lead us forward in the agenda of human dignity and social progress for which you and your family have stood over these many long decades of devoted and courageous public service.

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Doctor Death

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on April 27th, 2011

George Denkowski, a psychologist in Texas whose practice of declaring most anyone intellectually competent to face execution earned him the nickname "Dr. Death," will no longer be able to conduct intellectual disability evaluations after reaching a settlement with the psychology licensing board and attorneys representing 14 men he evaluated for the prosecution.

Democracy Now! and journalist Renee Feltz have covered the case and in the video below have shown the hard work done by activists and journos to reveal publically the flaws of the death penalty and how difficult it is to attain justice for those accused of terrible crimes. They have demonstrated quite clearly just how easy it is to jump to conclusions when one is an "expert"; an example of Denkowski's expertise, given in a short interview by Dr. Jerome Brown, would be laughable if it were not such a travesty of psychological expertise.

The most shocking part of the case is that Denkowski received no more than a reprimand and a fine of $5,500, under the condition that he no longer take on criminal cases, which will inevitably put the lives of 14 men in limbo while courts decide if the settlement is enough to take them off of death row. Denkowski did not have to admit that he had done anything wrong and the licensing board, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, did not find any wrongdoing.

Surely a person found guilty of a terrible crime does not lose his human status and right to fair and valid testing procedures? Dr. Denkowski has tested and found mentally able 16 men on death row in Texas. Two of these men have been executed, having possibly suffered cruel and unusual punishment, according to the Atkins v. Virginia ruling of the Supreme Court in 2002, because they would have been unable to understand the concept of consequences for their actions. Kathryn Kase, the second interviewee in the video, underlined this lack of humanity toward defendants when she explained that defense lawyers are often instructed to find "cheaper" rather than quality experts for their clients, illustrating the justice system's underlying bias against appellants.

It is our hope that aside from no longer practicing intellectual disability evaluations in death penalty trials, Texas courts will see the damning evidence against Denkowski's procedures - which have resulted in a number of intellectually disabled inmates being sentenced to death and are unequivocally panned by the psychology community - and agree with State Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston who says that every case involving Denkowski should be reviewed.

Said Ellis, who serves as the chairman of the Innocence Project board of directors, "We cannot simply shrug our shoulders and sit by and watch while the state uses legal technicalities to execute these intellectually disabled men."

Texas, which executes more inmates than any other state, faces a host of problems with its justice system. Arson investigations and convictions, lethal injection drugs, and mental health evaluations are just three of the system's glitches that have recently been publicized. If death were not so final, the issues would not be so crucial.

Posted in Blog, Sentencing | no comments



Forensic Science Commission Issues New Guidelines, Waits to Assign Responsibility

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on April 26th, 2011

The Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) issued sixteen recommendations on Friday, April 15th, which will provide guidance for investigators, attorneys, and lawmakers charged with looking into potential arsons.  The recommendations, which include calls for more education and training for arson investigators, as well as a new system for reviewing closed cases as science evolves, represent good faith efforts to improve Texas’ forensic science in the face of serious questions about the methods used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man who was executed in 2004 for allegedly starting a fire which took the lives of his three children.

Mr. Willingham, an unemployed mechanic, consistently maintained his innocence throughout the course of his incarceration, and multiple posthumous investigations have revealed that there was no conclusive evidence that the fire was set intentionally.  The nine-member commission has been tasked with sorting out exactly what happened in the Willingham case and its reports are designed to provide a framework which aligns Texas’ procedures with the most modern scientific techniques.

Unfortunately, the TFSC has faced resistance as it searches for the truth, much of it coming from the Governor’s office.  Governor Rick Perry seems to have a vested interest in suppressing debate over the circumstances of Mr. Willingham’s conviction as it was he who ignored scientific studies which suggested that there was “nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire” when he denied Mr. Willingham’s clemency request in 2004.  Governor Perry has played politics with the Commission, changing its composition right before it was scheduled to review a report which took serious issue with the trial testimony used to convict Mr. Willingham.  The new Commissioner cancelled this meeting, introducing another year of delay before a July 2010 panel issued analysis which condemned the prosecution’s “flawed science.”

This sort of political gamesmanship is not completely absent from the Commission’s current proceedings, as last week’s report does not, and will not, include any official assessments of investigator misconduct until it receives word from the state’s attorney general who will decide if such sanctions are within the Commission’s jurisdiction.  According to Sam Bassett, the Commissioner deposed by Perry in 2009, such judgments are already within TFSC’s purview, and the current maneuvering indicates that “politics rather than science will influence the decision.”


In spite of these concerns, the report represents an important tool for preventing miscarriages of justice like those experienced by Mr. Willingham from happening again.  As long as Texas continues to execute people at an alarmingly fast rate, there will be a premium on devising safeguards which will prevent further wrongful convictions, and in this respect, the new regulations are truly life savers.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | 1 comments



Taiwan and the Asian Death Penalty Debate

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on April 26th, 2011

In a recent Wall Street Journal blog article, Paul Mozur does some interesting and important reporting on recent developments in Taiwan regarding a wrongful execution which could have significant ramifications for the debate about the death penalty in Asia generally.  His piece referred to an original report in the Dui Hua Journal which covered a case concerning the wrongful execution of a soldier accused of murdering a child in 1996.  Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou issued a public apology for this miscarriage of justice, though his pronouncement was rendered somewhat hollow by following it up with the execution of five convicts.   The wrongful execution gained a great deal of media coverage, and incited criticism from the EU and international human rights groups.  This outrage is important and justified, and I share Mr. Mozur and the Dui Hua Journal editors’ belief that this case will be influential in changing Asian countries’ positions on the death penalty.  To see why, it helps to look at signs of movement on the death penalty at a government level over the last fifteen months or so in the key countries of South Korea, Japan and China as well as Taiwan.   

As Dui Hua reports, South Korea is mercifully "abolitionist in practice", with no executions since 1997 (although there have been rumblings of rebuilding the death chamber).  Fortunately, the nation currently has only 61 death row inmates despite the 110 different crimes for which convicts are death eligible.  While the majority of Koreans still favor the death penalty, their level of support decreases dramatically when asked to compare it against life without the possibility of parole.  The South Korean government also seems to be turning against capital punishment, as a 2010 high court ruling upheld the death sentence by a slim 5-4 vote, down from a 7-2 affirmation of the policy’s constitutionality in 1996.

The situation in Japan has certain similarities to the drama unfolding in Taiwan, as both countries, despite large public support for the death penalty have recently had Justice Ministers who strongly opposed the punishment.  Taiwanese Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng was such an outspoken critic that she was forced to resign her post in March 2010 after she said she would rather "go to hell" than authorize an execution.  Unfortunately, Ms. Wang’s courageous statement has engendered a backlash which has resulted in the execution of 10 prisoners in the last 12 months, leaving 40 on the Row. In spite of these recent executions, anti-death penalty momentum still exists within the Taiwanese government where politicians have begun to call for replacing the death sentence with a “special life sentence” (without the possibility of parole).  

In Japan, where there are 107 prisoners on death row, Ms. Keiko Chiba was the Justice Minister.  She played her cards differently from Ms. Wang when she authorized the execution of two inmates last May.  She then set up a committee to investigate the death penalty and also insisted that the death chamber should be opened to the press before she was voted out of office.  The present Justice Minister, Satsuki Eda is himself an opponent of capital punishment and has endorsed the study on the death penalty, though he is undecided as to whether or not he would sign any death warrants.

Even China, which executes more people than any other country, has started to recognize the possibility of error in capital cases and has begun instituting reforms.  The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has recently issued specific rules stating that illegally obtained evidence cannot be used in death penalty trials and that death sentences should only be rendered if sufficient evidence has been legally obtained.  As Zhao Bingzhi, head of the criminal law research committee under the China Law Society, puts it, these new rules will “…be conducive to reducing the number of executions and handling death penalty cases in a just and objective manner."    

Meanwhile, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) has banned the death penalty for all but the worst offenders who over the age of seventy five.  The NPC has also further limited the death penalty’s scope by eliminating its imposition as punishment for thirteen nonviolent crimes which include tax avoidance and the smuggling of cultural relics and precious metals out of the country.  These moves, while undoubtedly steps in the right direction, are at least partially motivated by a desire to shield China’s human rights policies from excessive scrutiny as shown by the fact these crimes have rarely incurred the maximum punishment, and there are still 55 offenses, including corruption, which are punishable by death.  In fact, further evidence of China’s reticence to do away with the death penalty can be seen in recent statements by  Li Buyun, a member of China’s top prosecutorial body, that the country needs at least 30 years to abolish capital punishment.

While not all the developments in these debates on capital punishment are wholly positive, that these public discussions are happening at all should provide great comfort to those who hope to see an end to the death penalty in Asia.  The more we publicize and comment on the flaws and problems of the death penalty, the sooner the whole world will realize that life imprisonment is an acceptable alternative .  This, in turn, ensures that no one will have to take the ultimate responsibility of ending the life of a convicted man or woman, while at the same time providing a chance to release the wrongfully convicted if and when such errors happen.




States Engage in Lethal Injection Drug Trade

Posted by Zac Stone on April 22nd, 2011

States around the country that retain the death penalty have for months been struggling to procure the most commonly used anesthetic in lethal injections, sodium thiopental. Following a shortage in raw materials by the sole U.S. manufacturer and the company's subsequent departure from the thiopental market, corrections officials in a number of states have scrambled to find an appropriate replacement for the drug, with many states turning to pentobarbital and still others engaging in a bona fide barbiturate black market among various state corrections departments.

Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas have already adopted pentobarbital and used it, either in the place of thiopental in a three-drug lethal injection protocol, or in one large dose, as the drug has long been used to euthanize animals. In humans, pentobarbital is most often used to induce coma, generally in brain-damaged patients, and occasionally to stop seizures when other drugs are ineffective. Thus far it has been easier for states to acquire pentobarbital than thiopental, as it is still produced in the U.S., specifically at a plant in Kansas. The plant is owned by Denmark's Lundbeck A/S, however, which has gotten Denmark's foreign minister Lene Espersen involved.

Espersen said she has "no possibility to take direct action at American states' use of the product for executions," as it is not exported from within the country, but she has promised to contact those states using pentobarbital from Lundbeck's plant in Kansas through the Danish embassy in Washington, to urge them against using the company's products in lethal injections. Realistically, and regrettably, the chances of that making a difference are slim.

Among those states that have not switched to pentobarbital, many have created what the New York Times recently described as a "legally questionable swap club" around the existing American thiopental stocks. At least four states - Arkansas, Georgia, Arizona, and California - purchased thiopental from a sketchy British pharmaceutical supplier before the country banned its export for use in lethal injections. Now the states that beat the new British law have been supplying those whose stores are depleted. Wendy Kelley, a deputy director of Arkansas's corrections department, acknowledged in a deposition that her state had provided free thiopental to Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, saying, "As best as I'm aware, the agreement my director had with other directors, any time there was an exchange, was that there would be a payback when needed."

The Obama Administration has reacted to the situation in somewhat contradictory ways; the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Georgia's thiopental, which was imported from the U.K. without DEA oversight, while the Justice Department on Wednesday urged a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges states' abilities to purchase lethal injection drugs from overseas without FDA approval. The justice department's motion suggests that it is within the FDA's discretion to allow lethal injection drugs into the country without first inspecting them.

Surely that does not tell the whole story, though, as the DEA also appropriated Kentucky's and Tennessee's thiopental stocks earlier this month. California's thiopental reserves, also imported from the U.K., were lab tested after they arrived and were certified sufficiently potent, but unrelated lawsuits have kept inmates from being executed in California for the past five years, and will likely continue to do so for some time, though the state continues to spend millions prosecuting capital cases and sentencing inmates to death. Arizona used its thiopental in two recent executions in which both inmates kept their eyes open long after they should with an effective sedative, indicating they were not properly anesthetized before cardiac arrest was induced. Still, the state has scheduled the execution of Donald Edward Beaty for May 25th without making a single change to the lethal injection protocol, all but ensuring that yet another inmate will suffer extreme pain at the hands of the state, and corrections officials will again unwittingly be made into torturers. Changes must be made to avoid this lamentable outcome, and every legal channel ought to remain open to ensure states do not circumvent federal drug laws in a misguided rush to kill inmates.




Will Botswana be the next country to abolish the death penalty?

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on April 21st, 2011

Botswana is a progressive and successful African country, the world's third largest producer of diamonds and the setting of the popular novels and television series " The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and its leading character, the redoubtable Mma Precious Remotswe. But unfortunately, like many US states, it still has the death penalty. However if the country's primary political opposition leader has his way, the country may soon become one of the three countries each year that get rid of the death penalty.

Duma Boko is both the leader of the Botswana National Front Party, the opposition party to the current government, and a prominent death penalty defense attorney. His client, Brandon Sampson, faces execution in July 2011. It should come as no surprise that Boko is also an outspoken supporter of abolishing the death penalty. In a recent interview with IPS ('It Cheapens Human Life', Inter Press Service, April 13, 2011 ) Boko explained his reasons for opposing the death penalty, fundamental reasons which have significance to every country which still employs capital punishment.

His first reason is the most basic: the irrevocability of the death sentence.

Secondly, Boko tackled the myth that the death penalty provides closure for the victims, "I don't think it makes them feel better. No one has done that study here to establish that it does." (I would like to direct Mr. Boko to the recent study by two sociologists from Kentucky which confirms his point by showing that executions fail to bring closure for victims' families: http://wcr.sonoma.edu/v12n1/Mowen.pdf.)

"What I think it does is that it cheapens human life," Mr Boko continued. And went on to make his third point: "The society that celebrates death by the state is an immature society. If we think our people are that immature, we need either to educate them or to establish if indeed they are.

"Because you may find that they are far from being that immature. It is the state that is immature in this regard and the legal system that forces judges and the state to be that immature." I think Mr Boko is advocating that the state should take the moral high ground in this issue and not just satisfy popular demand for the death penalty, which is found in many countries worldwide irrespective of whether or not they have capital punishment.

Finally, Duma Boko pointed out another common failure of the death penalty: under-resourced defense lawyers. He explained that the state prosecution had "all the facilities", whereas the defense depended largely on the commitment of individual lawyers who did not enjoy the same facilities as the prosecution. "There is no equality of arms, if you will, when the attorney representing the accused person does not have the same resources as the state. That is basically violating the constitution and that violation must itself vitiate the imposition of the death penalty on an individual. So it is a real challenge."

Needless to say, if Duma Boko were to become President of Botswana, he is committed to seeking a moratorium on executions or outright repeal of the death penalty: "…when I am at the helm of that government, I will not sign anybody's death warrant whether the law says so or not."

I hope that Duma Boko's appeal on behalf of Brandon Sampson is successful, but even more than that; I hope he is able to lead Botswana's efforts to end the death penalty in the near future.

And perhaps the question of capital punishment could be considered by Mma Precious Remotswe in some future volume of that famous detective agency?





CT Murder Victim Family Members Tell Legislators: Not in our Name!

Posted by Aarti Kelapure on April 20th, 2011

Originally published on the Daily Kos on April 19, 2011.

By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU Center for Justice

When I was a child, my cousin was brutally murdered.  As far as our family knows,  the police never found his killer.

A few years later, another cousin of mine was murdered in prison. His killers were in cahoots with his jailers, so none of them was ever prosecuted.

No one received the death penalty for these murders, and as a beloved family member of murder victims, I would never have supported pursuing capital punishment in either case.

As legislators in Connecticut grapple with a bill that would abolish the death penalty in the state, murder victims' families are speaking loudly about their opposition to Connecticut's capital punishment system. There is a tension. On one hand, victims' family members need finality and an end to reliving their loved one's horrible death in the media and the courts. But that kind of finality is not immediate, because the Constitution requires due process, effective counsel, and protection against wrongful conviction for those sentenced to death. The years of legal appeals before an execution extend and exacerbate murder victims' families' suffering.

During a public hearing last month on the pending death penalty abolition bill, the  stories of numerous victims' family members had a common theme: in order for the needs of murder victims' family members to be served, the death penalty must be replaced with permanent imprisonment, a more cost-effective alternative that would free up limited state resources for additional services for victims.

Gail Canzano, whose brother-in-law was murdered, explains: "(H)omicide grief is not assuaged by retribution; it is, in fact, worsened. . . The death penalty is a cruel hoax. It accomplishes nothing. It wastes millions of dollars and it further victimizes families who are already broken with grief."

Law enforcement, religious leaders and many others have come together in the state to support eliminating the broken capital punishment system. It is too costly, targets people of color for greater punishment, and mistakes are made. The current bill would replace the death penalty with life in prison with no possibility of release; it would not affect pending cases or previous sentences.

To show your support for abolition of the death penalty in Connecticut, click here.

When a loved one is murdered, the whole world as you know it comes crashing down, never to be the same again. But more killing won't bring the loved one back. It will, however, bring more pain for yet another family.

And I am a firm believer that the murder remains on the conscience of the killer forever — and that is a heavy burden they will never escape.

Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | no comments



Deficit spending: A Federal Death Penalty Extravaganza

Posted by Margo Schulter on April 19th, 2011

As Standard and Poor’s threatens to downgrade the credit rating of the United States of America, and the debate on the deficit and income tax rates continues, the Department of Justice continues a mode of truly extravagant spending: the federal death penalty.

This spending is especially gratuitous when the federal government disregards a community's own values and policies by seeking the death penalty in jurisdictions like the State of New York which do not themselves practice judicial homicide.

As reported by the New York Times and the Death Penalty Information Center, the federal government may end up spending $10 million on the capital murder trial of Vincent Basciano, a convicted murderer and racketeer who is presently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the 2008 killing of fellow mobster Frank Santoro.  Bonnano crime family boss Joseph C. Massino broke the mafia’s code of silence and has testified that Basciano ordered the 2004 murder of Bonnano associate Randolph Pizzolo.  It is important to note that Mr. Massino is currently serving time for eight different murders, and has offered his testimony in attempt to reduce his sentence.

When the Government decided to seek the death penalty, Federal District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis wisely urged Attorney General Eric Holder to reconsider this decision, noting that "Basciano is already sentenced to life imprisonment. He is designated to serve his sentence under extremely restrictive conditions in one of the nation's most secure
penal institutions." That institution, ADX Florence in Colorado, is a federal "supermax" prison which employs state of the art security measures designed to accommodate the most dangerous federal offenders, including mobsters and terrorists.

Instead of taking the hint from Judge Garaufis, however, the Attorney General responded by confirming the Government's decision to seek the death penalty, thus leading to a most telling headline in the New York Daily News: "Attorney General Eric Holder wants former Bonnano crime boss Vincent (Vinny Gorgeous) Basciano dead."

Mr. Holder’s eagerness to pursue the death penalty is deeply disappointing as it brings the entire U.S. justice system down to the homicidal level of the criminals we prosecute. Additionally, the decision to seek death despite New York’s seven year ban on the practice runs the risk of making an already extremely costly process even more expensive as going through the process of selecting a jury willing to apply the death sentence is more challenging in jurisdictions which no longer practice capital punishment.  All this energy is likely to amount to no change from Basciano’s current condition, as most federal capital trials where the defendant is convicted actually end with a penalty of life imprisonment, an outcome that seems especially likely given that New Yorkers have already rejected the death penalty.

Regardless of the outcome in the Pizzolo case, Vincent Basciano will spend the rest of his life behind bars.  Knowing this, it is hard to understand how the Attorney General’s office could justify the enormous fiscal and moral costs of a capital trial.  Our current economic difficulties make it imperative that we continue to advocate for abolition, the kindest budget cut of all.  It is time for us to abandon the pursuit of purely symbolic “victories” and turn our limited resources towards measures that will actually prevent violent crimes.

Posted in Blog | no comments



What do Hilary Swank and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn have in common?

Posted by Sara Bolder on April 19th, 2011
Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank

What do Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Hilary Swank and The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange have in common? They are all receiving awards on May 12th from Death Penalty Focus. Join us at the Beverly Hilton for a fun and inspiring evening. Other honorees are Stephen Bright, President of The Southern Center for Human Rights, Lance Lindsey, recently retired Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, and the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley Law School, led by Elisabeth Semel and Ty Alper. More info and ticket purchase here: DPF Awards Dinner

Posted in Blog | no comments



DNA Evidence Offers Longtime Death Row Inmate a Chance at Justice

Posted by Zac Stone on April 19th, 2011
William "Tommy" Zeigler last year, photo by Jacob Langston of the Orlando Sentinel

Last week Tommy Zeigler won an important battle for further DNA testing in his death penalty appeal. Zeigler was convicted of murdering his wife, in-laws, and a customer at his furniture store in Winter Garden, Florida on Christmas Eve 1975. Having sat on Florida's death row for decades, a judge has now ordered new tests to be performed on blood from the crime scene that Zeigler claims will exonerate him.

Zeigler was arrested and tried on the theory that he killed his wife to collect half a million dollars in life insurance, and that he shot himself to cover up his crime and frame it as an invasion. Zeigler has never wavered in his account of what happened, and passed polygraph tests asserting that he and his family were victims of a robbery that may have been motivated by Zeigler's involvement in uncovering a loan-sharking ring victimizing migrant workers.

Numerous injustices occurred over the course of Zeigler's trial and subsequent incarceration, including the misplacing and knowing destruction of evidence; reports offering exculpatory evidence were turned over to the defense team with very little time to prepare, or were not disclosed at all; a number of jurors in his original trial (half of whom first voted to acquit Zeigler, but were persuaded to convict) have come out in his support, and a couple have admitted to being prescribed Valium so they would be more amenable to convict a man whose guilt was in doubt. Prosecutors used witnesses that identified Zeigler as the killer while ignoring those eyewitnesses whose stories did not mesh with the state's fictionalized account.

Christine Cooper is the daughter of Robert Thompson, the former Central Florida police chief who was the first police officer at the crime scene. Cooper said she believes "the justice system failed" Zeigler. Thompson was involved as a mercenary in the arms trade in Central America in the 1980s, and his daughter says he died in 1999 "taking a lot of secrets with him." Thompson suppressed a report after the crime that did not surface until 1987 in which he wrote that the blood on Zeigler was dry when he found him, yet in its case against him, the state claimed Zeigler had just shot himself minutes earlier.

While the suspicions of the daughter of a deceased police chief are certainly not enough to overturn a murder conviction, Cooper's doubt and that of a number of witnesses and jurors lend credence to Zeigler's claim of innocence. It is clear that the case was mishandled, and justice was not properly served. Failed by the justice system on more than one occasion, Tommy Zeigler has been afforded his best chance in decades of receiving true justice with this admission of new DNA evidence. Should his sentence ultimately be reversed, Zeigler will join the nearly two dozen former Florida inmates who have been exonerated from death row since the 1970s. Please visit our Florida Action page to add your voice to those in favor of abolishing the state's failed death penalty system.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | 3 comments



Ending the Death Penalty: A Global Perspective

Posted by on April 14th, 2011

In his recent book, Ending the Death Penalty : The European Experience in Global Perspective, Andrew Hammel compares the successful abolitionist movements in Europe to their so-far unsuccessful counterparts in the US. It has long been perplexing that countries so similar in history, culture, and wealth would differ so markedly when it comes to capital punishment. Hammel attacks this problem by analyzing the abolitionist movements in Germany, Great Britain, and France. In these countries a small group in the ruling elite abolished capital punishment even though public opinion was by and large decidedly in favor of it. Given the populist tendencies in the United States, as well as our strongly entrenched Federalist system, Hammel argues that, politically, such a top-down approach is next to impossible here.

In his review of Hammel' s book, Law Professor William Berry offers an alternative view which suggests that action from the U.S. Supreme Court might be a counter-majoritarian approach that could end the death penalty in America. Such action would most likely occur if the Court were convinced that the nation' s "standards of decency" had evolved to the point where the death penalty was considered a cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. When it rendered the Harmelin decision in 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that any new interpretation of the " evolving standards of decency " should "be informed by objective factors to the maximum possible extent." The Supreme Court added in Penry v. Lynaugh that these "objective factors" should come from examinations of the state legislatures and jury decisions.

With the necessity for such objective evidence in mind, it is of note that during the past decade there has been a noticeable national shift toward a de facto ban on capital punishment. Since 2007, the New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois state legislatures have all done away with the death penalty , leaving 34 states that retain it. In New York, where the court struck down the state' s statute, the state legislature refused to reinstate it.

Furthermore, between 1998 and 2009 there has been a clear trend in the number of new death sentences per year given by juries in the United States: 294 -> 277 -> 224 -> 159 -> 166 -> 152 -> 140 -> 139 -> 123 -> 120 -> 119 -> 112, a decline of 60% over 12 years. Additionally, since 2002, the Supreme Court has in three separate decisions, banned the execution of the mentally retarded, those under the age of 18 at the time of their crime, and those who committed a crime other than murder. In these cases, the Court cited " evolving standards of decency ."

The Court has at its fingertips viable objective data from various state legislatures and evidence of decreasing death verdicts by juries, both of which demonstrate a national shift is indeed occurring. Hammel and Berry suggest that the successful top-down approach taken to end the death penalty in Europe will only occur in the US only if the Supreme Court takes action. Given the declining number of death sentences and the growing list of states without the death penalty , perhaps the time is ripe for the Supreme Court to act.




The Courts, they are a-changin'

Posted by Zac Stone, Guest Blogger on April 13th, 2011
Our 2011 Supreme Court

The Roberts Court really hit its groove in 2010, stripping cities' gun control laws and destroying longstanding campaign finance regulations (or as they would have it: extending free speech rights to corporate Americans), but we're just one quarter of the way through 2011 and we have already seen far-reaching decisions by the Roberts Court resulting in an assault on Americans' civil liberties. The Court is ignoring and defying a mounting chorus of opposition to the death penalty both nationally and globally, and setting precedents that will not just harm violent criminals, but innocent citizens and their loved ones. The Supreme Court has had its share of death penalty advocates in its history, but John Roberts and his conservative cohort on the Court - Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and from time to time Anthony Kennedy (the "swing" voter) - have proven themselves willing to put finality above justice and fairness.

In 1972, by a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Furman v. Georgia that the nation's death penalty laws were constitutionally flawed because the statutes failed to narrow the use of the death penalty to just the worst of the worst. They extended a moratorium on new sentences until each state "fixed" its statute. Among those justices favoring the moratorium were William Douglas, William Brennan, Potter Stewart, Byron White, and Thurgood Marshall. Those dissenting, who believed the death penalty to be constitutional as it was applied, were Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist. Four years later, the Court, with John Paul Stevens in place of Douglas, would vote to reinstate the death penalty 7 to 2 in its historic Gregg v. Georgia decision. Only Justices Brennan and Marshall dissented, arguing that the death penalty has no deterrent effect and that our society has evolved beyond the need to kill for retribution.

By the time the Court issued its 1987 decision in McCleskey v. Kemp, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia had joined them, replacing Stewart and Burger. Writing for the majority, Lewis Powell dismissed a statistical study that showed killers of whites were 11 times more likely to be sentenced to die than those whose victims were Black. Four other justices agreed with Powell, who said the study failed to "demonstrate a constitutionally significant risk of racial bias," and was insufficient to invalidate Georgia's death penalty.

Time and time again, however, the statistics would prove consistent - to this day those who kill whites are significantly more likely to face execution than those who kill African-Americans or Latinos. His decision in McClesky v. Kemp would become one of Powell's great regrets; Powell told his biographer in 1991 he would reverse his McClesky decision if afforded the opportunity, saying he had "come to think that capital punishment should be abolished."

Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens both dissented in McClesky, but qualified their statements, distancing themselves from Justices Marshall and Brennan, who since Furman had openly stated that they believed the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment in any circumstance and that it could not be made fair. Blackmun would wait another six years before finally declaring the death penalty system "fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake" (Callins v. Collins, 1993).

"The problem," Justice Blackmun said, "is that the inevitability of factual, legal and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution."

John Paul Stevens' position on capital punishment evolved over his three decades on the court, but he too eventually concluded in 2008 that capital punishment is both "pointless and needless." He offered further insight in a New York Times essay published in late 2010, in which he wrote, "While support of the death penalty wins votes for some elected officials, all participants in the process must realize the monumental costs that capital cases impose on the judicial system. The financial costs…are obvious; seldom mentioned is the impact on the conscientious juror obliged to make a life-or-death decision despite residual doubts about a defendant's guilt." Consider also the impact on corrections officials and medical personnel put in the position of executing a person whose guilt is uncertain.

"Many [inmates] have repented and made positive contributions to society," Stevens wrote. "The finality of an execution always ends that possibility. More importantly, that finality also includes the risk that the state may put an actually innocent person to death."

The Roberts Court would do well to heed the wisdom of three of its predecessors, appointed by Republicans, informed by years on the bench, who all reversed course on the death penalty after or near the end of their tenure on the Court. It seems clear, however, that they don't share Justice Blackmun's resistance to "tinker with the machinery of death."

Just last month, the Court reversed a jury verdict and lower court ruling that had awarded a wrongfully-convicted man, John Thompson, a $14 million dollar settlement for the 14 years he spent on Louisiana's death row. Prosecutors supervised by Orleans Parish district attorney, Harry Connick, Sr. had covered up exculpatory evidence that demonstrated Thompson's innocence. Though Thompson was able to prove that multiple prosecutors withheld evidence that would have exonerated him, the Court found with Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority that, "a district attorney cannot be held liable for the actions of his subordinates." Justice Thomas claims one must prove a pattern of similar violations exists in order to justify holding the city's government liable for the misconduct; one Brady violation in Thompson's case, albeit egregious and involving numerous prosecutors, just doesn't cut it.

The Court has issued a dangerous precedent in Thompson's case. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated in her dissent, "The prosecutorial concealment Thompson encountered…is bound to be repeated unless municipal agencies bear responsibility." By saying the buck stops nowhere, the Court has effectively eliminated a defendant's ability to hold prosecutors accountable for willfully violating his civil liberties, giving prosecutors everywhere incentive to use similar underhanded tactics to achieve future guilty verdicts and death sentences.

Last week the Court's majority took the bizarre step of actually reinstating a death sentence in the case of Scott Lynn Pinholster, who suffered brain damage as a child that resulted in his intellectual disability, despite rulings by a federal judge and a federal appeals court that found Pinholster's attorneys had failed him by offering no mitigating evidence during his sentencing trial. You don't have to be a legal scholar to see the how knowingly ignoring evidence - exculpatory, mitigating, or otherwise, can lead to an injustice.

In light of its recent rulings, it is evident that a majority of the justices currently on the Court are willing to dismiss the opinions of those that came before them and a growing majority of the global community. The Court's majority has shown an indifference to human life and a willingness to erode civil liberties with no discernable benefits to our society.

If Justices Blackmun, Powell, and Stevens were able to travel back in time and reconsider Gregg v. Georgia, they would likely join Justices Brennan and Marshall in striking down the death penalty.

If just one of the Court's current sitting justices revised his thinking about the death penalty, we would likely see a drastic sea change on the matter.

Unfortunately, we cannot wait for reason to strike. America's 30-year experiment with the death penalty has failed. To protect human life, to save states' depleted financial resources, we must embrace ending the death penalty where we can, and limiting its use where abolition is currently politically impossible. To artificially prop up what Justice Blackmun described so long ago as a failed experiment is nonsensical. Upending the status quo has never been easy, but the Roberts Court and all of us ought to strongly consider the viable, life-affirming alternatives to America's overworked courts and bloated death row prisons.


"Closure" and Capital Punishment

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on April 12th, 2011

In their study, “Not In My Name: An Investigation of Victim’s Family Clemency Movements and Court Appointed Closure,” recently published in The Western Criminology Review, University of Louisville sociologists Thomas J. Mowen and Dr. Ryan D. Schroeder shine a spotlight on one of the more misunderstood elements of the death penalty, namely the effect that death sentences have on covictims, the surviving family of the murdered.  While victim’s family members are often trotted out as the main beneficiaries of capital punishment, Mowen and Schroeder’s research draws attention to the growing victim’s clemency movement and helps to explain how the recent emphasis on closure as a justification for the death penalty has in fact produced greater covictim opposition.  Their work also draws attention to the role media coverage plays in both representing and shaping public opinion on the death penalty, highlighting the way that newspapers have a tendency to overstate victim support for the system.

Mowen and Schroeder begin their analysis with a survey of the criminological research done on the justifications prevalently appealed to by death penalty supporters.  They note that the public generally accepts that there is little, if any, deterrent or fiscal benefit to capital punishment.  In spite of this, public support remains relatively strong (though drops dramatically in polls which compare death sentences to life without the possibility of parole).  The reason for this is that there has been a shift in justification from utilitarian policy concerns to an emphasis on moral arguments that focus on the importance of retribution and victim closure—i.e. the belief that executions are essential to providing family members with some emotional relief that allows them to ‘move past’ their suffering.  As recent research by Scott Vollum and Jacqueline Buffington-Vollum has shown, these types of value-expressive justifications are less vulnerable to change in the face of evidence which demonstrates the short-comings of capital punishment than arguments that focus on the policy’s effectiveness because such justifications are tied to the individual’s conception of their identity.

As the authors are very quick to point out, there are some very serious problems with these closure based arguments for maintaining capital punishment.  First, there is a serious contradiction between the “highly contextual and individualized” nature of closure as an emotional state, and the objective and rational framework of the legal system which is supposed to deliver this feeling to the aggrieved.  This problem is compounded by the fact that there is often a very real difference between the way the court and covictims conceive of closure—for family members who have lost love ones, the pain of that loss frequently lingers long after the case is “closed” and the legal mechanisms for applying justice have reached their terminus.  The idea that any legal remedy could resolve their suffering functions to marginalize the voices of covictims as they go through the grieving process, and may in fact stifle the creation of social networks that are responsive to their needs (as can be seen anecdotally in the way California’s victim’s restitution fund has been allowed to approach bankruptcy as the state continues to spend millions of dollars each year on capital punishment).  The tension between the diverse and continuous process of grieving and the one size fits all approach of the justice system has the effect of shoehorning covictims into a court approved version of closure which leaves little room for alternative ways of coping with loss.  

In addition to creating problems for victims, the closure approach to capital punishment also raises significant concerns for the fairness of our justice system.  By treating trials as therapeutic tools, the emphasis on closure reverses the presumption of the accused’s innocence which is a hallmark of our legal system, and threatens to only heighten the bias which frequently plagues capital trials.  If trials are being undertaken in order to serve the particular emotional needs of family members, we are implicitly sending the signal to jurors that their primary obligation is not to dispassionately assess guilt or innocence, but is instead to actively involve themselves in victims’ healing processes, thus staking the deck against defendants before trials even begin.

Because of these concerns, there has been a growing contingent of victims who oppose execution as a means of closure.  Mowen and Schroeder’s study documents the emergence of this covictims clemency movement as a reaction to the shift in popular justification for capital punishment, while also evaluating the way newspaper coverage of capital trials seeks to minimize acknowledging this reaction.  To do this, they analyzed 119 articles from the 1992-2009 that comprised a representative cross-section of death penalty coverage.  They found that there was a statistically significant increase in covictim resistance to capital punishment which occurred at a rate of 3.262% during the period studied.  They also discovered that courts had a tendency to cite closure as an explicit justification far more frequently then covictims (who other studies have indicated report executions bring closure in only 2.7% of relevant cases).

Despite this trend of increased opposition, newspaper coverage consistently attempts to highlight victim support for the death penalty.  In their research, Mowen and Schroeder consistently found that articles which emphasized the execution-closure connection were longer and more prominently featured in the paper than their anti-death penalty counterparts.  While they were reluctant to draw overly sweeping conclusions from their data set, Mowen and Schroeder rightly observe that their findings point to a growing disjunction between the actual will of victim’s family and the popular representation of their interests.

“Not In My Name” represents an important step towards challenging conventional wisdom regarding covictims’ stance on capital punishment, and raises important questions about the practical and moral implications of using state-killing as a tool for healing.  Mowen and Schroeder have pointed the way for a research agenda which attempts to take seriously the multitude of perspectives held by victims’ families, and their call for a transformation of “victims’ families from noncontributing outsiders...to active participants within the current capital punishment paradigm” demands attention from all of us who are committed to ensuring that no one, be they covictim, or defendant, is “victimized at the hands of ‘justice.’”

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Justice Sotomayor's Courageous Dissent

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on April 12th, 2011

In her courageous and compelling dissent from a 5-4 decision of the United States Supreme Court reinstating the death sentence of California prisoner Scott Pinholster, Justice Sonia Sotomayor told how a jury deliberated for two days before returning its fateful penalty verdict -- after Pinholster's two trial attorneys failed to investigate his background, overlooking evidence of his traumatic brain injuries in early childhood, seizure disorders, and severe lifelong mental illness that would have made a powerful case for life.

Justice Sotomayor, along with her colleagues Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, would have affirmed a 2009 decision of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturning Pinholster's death sentence on the grounds that the failure of his attorneys to search for and find this "voluminous" mitigating evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to "effective assistance of counsel" in the penalty phase of his 1984 trial.

However, a five-justice majority led by Justice Clarence Thomas reversed the Ninth Circuit and reinstated the death sentence, holding among other things that the new evidence of the "psychotic" Pinholster's traumatic brain injury, neurological abnormalities, and severe mental illness did not raise a "reasonable probability" that if his jury had heard it they might have reached a different penalty verdict, thus "undermining" confidence in the actual verdict of death. The full text of the Court's arguments can be found here.

The case also focused on technical issues relating to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, passed by Congress to restrict the scope of federal appeals by state prisoners in capital and noncapital cases. Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, made the interpretation of these restrictions yet tighter by holding that federal courts must give full weight and deference to a state court's denial of a prisoner's constitutional claim (e.g. ineffective assistance of counsel) even if the court simply rejects a claim without stating any findings of facts or explaining its legal reasoning. The Court's holding also limited the scope of federal evidentiary hearings exploring facts not fully developed in state court that might cast additional doubt on a conviction or death sentence.

Justice Thomas was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy; Justice Samuel Alito furnished the fifth vote to reinstate Pinholster's death sentence, but wrote separately to urge the need for a broader scope for federal evidentiary hearings. Reserving judgment on Pinholster's death sentence, Justice Stephen Breyer would have remanded the case for further consideration by the Ninth Circuit, leaving that court to decide whether an evidentiary hearing might be justified under the stricter reading of the AEDPA now in effect.

Cutting to the heart of the matter, however, it was Justice Sotomayor who served as the moral and legal compass of the Court by telling the horrific story of Pinholster's brain injuries, violent abuse by his stepfather and other family members, abnormal EEG at the age of nine followed by seizure disorders, and lifelong history of serious mental illness which led to a proposal to place him in the Hope Psychiatric Institute only months before he murdered Thomas Johnson and Robert Beckett in the course of a 1982 burglary at the home of a drug dealer who was a friend of the victims.

In vivid human detail, we learn how Pinholster was run over by his mother at the age of two, and then in another car accident at the age of four or five had his head thrown through the windshield of the vehicle, suffering injuries which could explain his brain abnormalities and epileptic seizures from childhood on, as well as his evident learning disorders and psychological problems ultimately leading to an escalating pattern of violent and criminal behavior.

Together with these traumatic brain injuries went a childhood in which Pinholster and his siblings, to quote a psychiatrist who actually testified for the state, Dr. John Stalberg, had been "raised like animals, wild animals." Pinholster's stepfather had routinely beaten him -- on at least one occasion with a wooden two-by-four. The history of close family members was filled with mental illness and drug abuse as well as criminal behavior. As Sotomayor details, "Pinholster's half-sister was removed from the home as a result of a beating by his stepfather...."; and his elder brother was diagnosed as "catatonic-like" and "acutely psychotic," eventually committing suicide.

Reading these facts, one must ask, how could any reasonable court sustain a death sentence handed down by a jury in ignorance of this overwhelming mitigation, much less hold that there was no "reasonable probability" that the jury might have chosen permanent imprisonment (life without parole) if informed of the tragedy of Pinholster's entire life as well as the horror of his two murders and other crimes?

As Justice Sotomayor shows, ably commanding the Court's intricate death penalty jurisprudence developed over the last four decades while never losing sight of the human realities, proper application of recent cases would require upholding the Ninth Circuit's decision to vacate the death penalty, leaving California free either to grant Pinholster a new penalty trial where the jury can hear all the mitigating evidence, or else simply to reduce the sentence to permanent imprisonment.

As shocking as the deficiencies of Pinholster's trial lawyers, one of whom was later disbarred, perhaps even more appalling was one of the explanations offered by Justice Thomas for holding that the omitted mitigating evidence would have been unlikely to change the result: the evidence of serious "substance abuse, mental illness, and criminal problems" in Pinholster's family was "by no means clearly mitigating, as the jury might have concluded that Pinholster was simply beyond rehabilitation."

Amazingly, to justify the view that a rational jury could weigh Pinholster's tragic family background -- and presumably also his own traumatic brain injuries and resulting seizure disorders as well as his lifelong mental illness -- as factors actually tipping the scales toward death, Justice Thomas cites the case of Atkins v. Virginia (2002). There the Court likewise noted that mitigating evidence of mental retardation "can be a 'two-edged sword'" which might lead a jury to find the aggravating factor of "future dangerousness."

Whether or not Justice Thomas realized or intended it, his citation of Atkins is indeed a powerful two-edged legal sword: to avoid the risk that a jury might perversely view a defendant's intellectual disability as aggravating rather than mitigating, the Atkins Court categorically excluded the death penalty for offenders with mental retardation. And in Roper v. Simmons (2005), likewise noting a Missouri prosecutor's suggestion that the youth of a defendant who killed at age 17 was "scary" rather than "mitigating," the Court eliminated the risk of such misguided and deadly logic by categorically barring the death penalty for offenders who committed their capital crimes before reaching the age of 18.

Legal advocates have already been urging that the logic of Atkins and Simmons should be extended by barring the death penalty for all defendants with serious mental illness or organic brain damage, thus avoiding miscarriages of justice such as that documented by the Ninth Circuit and Justice Sotomayor in the case of Scott Pinholster. It is ironic that Justice Thomas, by his two-edged citation of Atkins, may have provided the most cogent argument of all in favor of barring the death penalty for the intellectually disabled.

Better yet, of course, we should categorically bar the death penalty under any circumstance.


Another Foreign Drug Company Refuses to Export Lethal Injection Drug to US

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on April 11th, 2011

Late last week yet another pharmaceutical company refused to supply the lethal injection drug sodium thiopental to prisons. After it pulled the drug from the market, Kayem Pharmaceutical, a company based in India, released a statement emphasizing its opposition to the drug's use in capital punishment: "[…] we voluntary declare that we as Indian Pharma Dealer who cherish the Ethos of Hinduism (A believer even in non-livings as the creation of God) refrain ourselves in selling this drug where the purpose is purely for Lethal Injection and its misuse" [sic].

This move creates more problems for prisons already dealing with a critically short supply of the drug. Earlier this year Hospira Inc., the last domestic supplier of sodium thiopental, ceased production to protest its role in lethal injection. Prisons then turned to overseas providers, but faced mounting legal issues with the DEA and FDA. The Texas Department of Corrections, for instance, was raided last month after it came to light that it had illegally imported its supply of sodium thiopental from Italy. The Texas DoC was not authorized to independently import a schedule III narcotic into the United States and also failed to declare the shipment to the DEA.

The Nebraska Department of Corrections has also fallen under unwanted scrutiny amid evidence that it too cut corners when it imported sodium thiopental from India. The Nebraska DoC is not authorized by the DEA to directly import drugs from foreign suppliers. One document even suggests that, in place of sodium thiopental, Nebraska instead received a shipment of thiopentone thiosol sodium– a generic version of the drug not authorized for use in executions. Furthermore, Kayem failed to gain permission from the FDA before it exported the drug to the United States.

The manufacturers’ boycott of sodium thiopental production could be a crucial step toward a de facto abolition of the death penalty in the United States. As the remaining sodium thiopental available for executions expires and is not replaced, states will need to find a suitable replacement drug that comports with the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. This process could take a great deal of time. California, for instance, has had a de facto moratorium since 2006 as the Constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol is reviewed. As states scramble to find a suitable replacement for sodium thiopental it is quite possible that the number of executions in the United States could, at least in the short term, drastically decline.

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Time On Death Row: A Word From Mike Farrell

Posted by Mike Farrell on April 7th, 2011

The following is from interview given by Death Penalty Focus President Mike Farrell.  Mike has been heavily involved in struggles to protect human rights at home and abroad for more than three decades, and in addition to his work with DPF serves as a member of the board of directors for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.  In this Q&A session, Mike sheds some light on why our system of capital punishment moves as slowly as it does, what the real social costs of that system are, and what more effective alternatives might look like.

The death penalty was held unconstitutional in 1972 in what is known as the Furman decision (Furman v. Georgia).  The court held that imposition of the death penalty at that time was “cruel and unusual” and compared it to being struck by lightning.  The justices felt that it was used in an arbitrary and capricious manner and that there were implications of racism in its application.

In 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, the death penalty was reinstated by virtue of a number of safeguards that were built into the law, the intention of which was to correct the problems found in Furman.  These safeguards included the requirement of a bifurcated trial, the first to determine guilt or innocence and the second, if guilt was determined, to decide the punishment.  In a capital case with what became known as “special circumstances,” or aggravating factors, the choice was then between life in prison with no chance of parole or death. 

Because, as the courts said, “death is different,” it required additional protections for the accused, all of which cost a great deal of money: provision of expert witnesses, requirement that two competent attorneys represent the defendant, special security, etc.  And in the case of a guilty verdict and a death sentence, the court required that a series of appeals be available to the convicted person, first through the state and then through the federal courts.

All of these special requirements add up to a huge expenditure of time and money on the part of the state and federal governments, but they are what is required to make killing a human being pass constitutional muster.

Today, the average time an individual spends on death row after being convicted ranges from approximately 12 to 20 years, depending on the state and the log-jam in the courts.  Many go much longer.

If the problem is that criminals spend too much time on death row, that is simply the way it has worked out in order for the system to meet our constitutional standards.  What the appeals process has exposed is the too-often slipshod manner by which people are sentenced to death and the hideous number of wrongful convictions that occur.  In order to speed up the process we would not only have to spend much more money, we would also run an increased risk of executing the innocent.

What those of us who oppose the death penalty in all cases believe, and I think our objections are being validated over time, is that racism remains a factor in death prosecutions; that virtually everyone given a death sentence is a poor person who couldn’t afford a proper defense; that there remains a problem with ambitious prosecutors or overworked police who aren’t as careful about the facts as fairness requires; that incompetent defense attorneys continue to feed hapless, often innocent victims into the system; that any system run by humans makes mistakes; that it is morally wrong to kill when we can keep society safe by incarcerating those who act out violently for the rest of their lives, when and if necessary; and that huge amounts of tax dollars are being wasted on a system that is truly dysfunctional.

In my view, many of those who commit murder are capable of being rehabilitated and returned to society after they have demonstrated remorse, worked to earn money that can be used to compensate victim’s family members (or a victim’s fund), and worked to improve themselves and show an ability to be a productive and law-abiding member of society.  For that reason, I believe there should be a series of graduated sentences for a capital crime and during the period of incarceration, the convicted should be given opportunities to better him or herself.  Sentences then could begin with something like a requirement of at least 25 years before being considered for parole, perhaps 40 years for others, depending on the circumstances of the crime, and that life without parole should be reserved for those so bent and broken by life’s circumstances that they cannot ever be safely released into society.

That way we would not demean ourselves by stooping to killing other human beings.  And, we would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Should Murderers Die?

Posted by Stephen F. Rohde, DPF Board Member on April 1st, 2011

In a civilized society, we should not kill to show that killing is wrong. Dennis Prager thinks that murderers should die and therefore places state killing on a higher moral plane than those of us who believe that state killing is itself immoral ("Murderers Should Die," March 18).

Prager claims that there is almost no issue "for which the gulf between people on opposite sides of an issue is as unbridgeable as on the issue of the death penalty for murderers." Yet he ignores the fact that many have bridged that gulf as the death penalty continues to become less and less popular with Americans. A July 2010 Field Poll revealed that, when asked which sentence they preferred for a first-degree murderer, 42 percent of registered voters said they preferred life without parole and only 41 percent said they preferred the death penalty.

Prager cites the Torah as his single moral compass. But the Torah, among many ancient religious texts, includes rules and prohibitions that few would subscribe to today. According to the Torah, in addition to murder, offenses that merit death include disobedience to a parent, contempt of court, blasphemy, sacrificing to another god, false prophecy, necromancy, premarital sex, bestiality and breaking the Sabbath.

"Many Jewish opponents of the death penalty point to Israel, which has disallowed capital punishment since its establishment," Prager argues, but he dismisses this important fact by claiming that "Israel was founded by Jews who took their values from the European Enlightenment, not from the Torah, and that is why they banned capital punishment in Israel."

Indeed, most Americans, including the [Founding Fathers] who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and presumably most Jews in America, also derive their values from the European Enlightenment, which over time has led to less and less support for the death penalty.

The majority of nations and Western democracies have abolished the death penalty, and the International Criminal Court has barred the use of capital punishment even for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Prager engages in the utter speculation that "more innocents die with no capital punishment than with it." If we consider life without parole the natural alternative to the death penalty, the risk to innocent people is negligible. The risk of a murderer escaping from prison and murdering again is less than a fraction of a percent. And Prager callously ignores the fact that there is overwhelming evidence in at least nine cases since 1980 that innocent men were executed in the United States.

Elie Wiesel, covering Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem (the only instance of civil execution in Israel's history), called the execution "an example not to be followed." "Society should not be the Angel of Death," he said. "We should not be servants of death. The law should celebrate, glorify, sanctify life, always life."

As between Wiesel and the value of life and Prager and the value of death, I choose life.


The writer, a constitutional lawyer, is president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and represented a man on California's death row.

This letter originally appeared in the
JEWISH JOURNAL, March 29, 2011, Letters to the Editor section.

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U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Petition by Troy Davis

Posted by Zac Stone on March 30th, 2011

After some uplifting news from Los Angeles in the case of Francisco Carrillo, freed from prison last week after faulty eyewitness testimony wrongfully put him there 20 years ago, there is distressing news from Georgia, where Troy Davis, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer in Savannah, has had his final appeal denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. And though Davis has been here before - his execution has been scheduled on three occasions, each time stayed by a judge for review - barring clemency by Georgia's Governor or Board of Pardons and Paroles, Troy Davis will soon face execution.

Convicted with no physical evidence linking him to the crime, Davis was unable to convince a federal judge that seven out of nine eyewitnesses recanting their testimony suggested doubt about his guilt. Because prosecutors lacked any physical evidence, including the murder weapon, which might link Davis to the crime, they relied entirely on the eyewitness testimony of, according to original defense lawyer Robert Barker, a "cast of characters" including "jail birds, felons, [and] twice convicted felons." This served to limit Davis' options for appeal, forcing him to try and prove that the seven eyewitnesses who recanted their testimony were now credible, and that their recantations diminished the state's case against Davis. Despite evidence of police coercion and other underhanded tactics used to obtain witness identifications, and two witnesses claiming another man confessed to the crime, it was apparently not enough to sow doubt in the mind of U.S. District Judge William T. Moore, nor the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, nor the U.S. Supreme Court, which both declined to hear Davis' challenge.

Because the Drug Enforcement Agency recently seized Georgia's supply of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic used in executions which the state acquired illegally from sources abroad, Davis' execution will likely be delayed until the DEA completes its investigation or Georgia switches to another sedative in its lethal injection protocol. Arizona, Ohio, and Texas have adopted pentobarbital.

Execution drugs aside, serious doubts still exist about Davis' guilt, and they cast a pall over his death sentence. We know the dangers of relying on eyewitness testimony, and this case rests solely on the credibility of a pair of eyewitnesses, with nary a shred of physical evidence to tie Davis to the murder. How so many learned individuals are able to convince themselves Davis is guilty without a doubt is both astounding and disheartening. We must take action to ensure that justice is fairly served and not undermined, for Troy Davis, his family, and for the victims of this crime and others.

Please help stop the execution of Troy Davis by signing this petition to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles today.




An Open Letter to Gov. Jerry Brown from the Former "Hanging Judge of Orange County"

Posted by Donald A. McCartin, Guest Blogger on March 30th, 2011

Dear Governor Brown,

Welcome back. I offer here a few thoughts for your consideration.

After you were gutsy enough to appoint me, a right-wing Republican, to the Superior Court of Orange County, I served there from 1978 to 1993, after which I sat on assignment on death cases throughout California. In all, I presided over more trials than I can possibly recount. Among those I do remember, however, were ten murder trials in which I sentenced the convicted men to die in our state's execution chamber. As a result, I became known as "the hanging judge of Orange County," an appellation that, I will confess, I accepted with some pride.

The ten were deemed guilty of horrifying crimes by their peers, and in the jurors' view as well as mine they deserved to die at the hands of the state. However, as of today, one has died of natural causes in prison and none of the others has been executed, a fact that stirs deep anger within me.

Let me explain:

I am angered by the fact that our system of laws has become so complex and convoluted that a decision I was put in the position to make, one that I then believed promised resolution for the family members of the victims of those crimes, has been made a mockery.

I have followed the development of legal thinking and understand why our nation's Supreme Court, in holding that "death is different," required that special care be taken to safeguard the rights of those accused of capital crimes, especially those sentenced to death. Such wisdom protects our society from returning to the barbarism of the past. And while I find it discomfiting and to a significant degree embarrassing that appellate courts have found fault with some of my statements, acts or decisions, I can live with the fact that their findings arise out of an attempt to ensure that the process has been scrupulously fair before such a sentence is carried out.

I can live with it and, apparently, so can the men I condemned. The first one, Rodney James Alcala, whom I sentenced to die over 30 years ago for kidnapping and killing 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, was, just last year, again sentenced to death for killing little Robin Samsoe and four other young women who, it has subsequently been determined, were his victims at around the same time.

I need not here go into the permutations of Mr. Alcala's legal journey. Behind bars since 1979, he has not harmed, nor can he harm, any other young women. That's instructive because harm has been done and that's what infuriates me. Robin Samsoe's mother has been re-victimized time and time again as the state of California has spent millions upon millions of dollars in a series of unsuccessful attempts to fulfill its promise that her daughter's murder can be resolved and she can go on with her life.

Had I known then what I know now I would have given Mr. Alcala and the others the alternative sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Had I done that, Robin's mother Marianne would have been spared the pain of 30 years of misery, wondering if her daughter's murder would ever be finally resolved. She could have dealt then and there with the fact that her daughter's killer would be shut away, never again to see a day of freedom, and gone on to put her life together. Had I done that, the State of California would not have put her through the torture of hearing after hearing, trial after trial. Had I done that, the people of California would have been spared the hideous expense of hundreds of millions of their tax dollars that were squandered in this meaningless and ultimately fruitless pursuit of death.

It makes me angry, Governor Brown, to have been made a player in a system that is so inefficient, so ineffective, so expensive and so emotionally costly to those to whom it promises peace but delivers only pain.

I watch today as you wrestle with the massive debt that is suffocating our state and hear that you don't want to "play games." But I cringe when I learn that not playing games amounts to cuts to kindergarten, cuts to universities, cuts to people with special needs and I hear no mention of the simple cut that would save hundreds of millions of dollars, countless man-hours, unimaginable court time and years of emotional torture for victim's family members waiting for that magical sense of "closure" they've been promised by prosecutors once the perpetrator has been killed by the state.

You and I know, Governor, that there is no such thing as "closure" when a loved one is taken. What family members must find is reconciliation with the reality of their loss, and that can begin the minute the perpetrator is sent to a prison he will never leave. But to ask them to endure the years of being dragged through the courts with the promise that the state will end their pain by causing the death of another is a cruel lie.

So I agree that we should no longer play games, Governor Brown. You and I are both older now, so let's stop playing the killing game. Let's use the hundreds of millions of dollars we'll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death. Let's stop asking people like me to lie to those victim's family members.

I'm told you don't have the power to end the death penalty by yourself, but you can point the way. You can have a huge financial impact on California by following the lead of Governor Ryan of Illinois and commuting the sentences of all the men and women on California's death row - all 700-plus of them - to life without parole. And you can direct the millions you save to making some of our citizens' lives brighter and more promising.

Let's stop playing games, Governor. Let's stop lying to the people; let's stop being politicians and start behaving like the grownups we've become.

With Respect,

Donald A. McCartin,

Judge, Superior Court (Ret.), Orange County




Theologian Dale Recinella Responds to Biblical Justification of Death Penalty

Posted by Dale S. Recinella, J.D., M.T.S, Guest Blogger on March 29th, 2011

My dear Christian friend, Mr. Robert Michaels:

 

I read your 03/25/2011 01:03:32 AM PDT post in the Vallejo Times Herald concerning the Bible and the death penalty. Thank you for your sincere and conscientious interest in the issue of the death penalty. Perhaps because of my extensive writing and speaking in the area of the American death penalty and religion, especially Christian religion, it is proper for me to address you on this subject.

 

You have indicated that you are of the opinion that people of biblical faith must, after all is said and done, support what is required by the Bible. I agree. For decades I supported the American death penalty. My support was based upon what I thought was in Holy Scripture. And you and I are not alone in that. The reason, I think, that over 86% of all the executions in the U.S. in the last 33 years have occurred in the Bible Belt is because good, Bible-believing people believe that the Bible requires it. That was why I supported it.

 

Well, I'm also a lawyer. After many years as a corporate lawyer God called me and my wife to ministry. Now, with 13 years of ministry to the families of murder victims, to men being executed, to families of the executed, and to staff at Florida's death row prison, I have had to dig back into the Scriptures much more deeply than I had before in order to find out exactly what God is expecting of us.

 

My conclusion is that God expects our society to punish wrongdoing-you may use the word retribution and that's a fine word by my reading of the Bible. There must be consequences for choosing to do harm to society, to people and to property. And it must be just punishment or those who are not motivated by grace will scoff at the law and run roughshod over the innocent.

 

That brought me to the next question, what is just punishment?

 

Let's say a criminal commits a crime that causes someone to be burned over half their body, or causes a person to be blinded, or to lose a limb. Does the justice required by Scripture mean that we have to take that criminal and burn half his body, or blind him or severe his limbs? We might want to-but that's not the question. The question is does God's Word require such a burning or blinding or maiming in order for the punishment to be just? Virtually all Christians agree that it does not. Time to be spent in prison is the just punishment.

 

So, then, what if the crime committed involves the taking of human life? Is the killing of the criminal the only just punishment allowed by Scripture? I do not think so. I think life in prison without possibility of parole is punishment that fully grants retribution for the evil done. And, you and I do not have to become killers ourselves in order to carry out that punishment.

 

You have looked to Paul's Epistle to the Romans 13:3-4 to confirm God's mandate for capital punishment:

 

"But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for (government) beareth not the sword in vain: for (government) is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." Authorized King James Version.

 

The two critical words here are sword and execute. If government bears the sword as God's minister to execute offenders, it sounds like a scriptural mandate ("command") for capital punishment. Is it?

 

There are distinctly different Greek words that translate into English as sword. RHOMPHAIA means a saber, a long and broad cutlass, a broadsword. This is the instrument used for decapitation, capital punishment by sword. As a Roman citizen, Paul had the right to be executed by broadsword and not by crucifixion. My bet is that Paul knew the Greek word for the sword used for capital punishment. This is not the word used in the Greek in Romans 13:4.

 

MACHAIRA, the Greek word used in Romans 13:4, means a short sword worn on the belt, a dagger. This is not the instrument used for decapitation, but was used as a metaphor for the authority of the courts to inflict punishment in general.

 

Also, the word execute is not in the original Greek scriptures of this verse. The word execute has been inserted by the translator into the Authorized King James Version to provide a verb so the sentence makes sense in English. The Greek original does not have this verb. The English translation uses it as a synonym for bring or inflict. Because the word "execute" is not in the original Greek but is inserted by the English translators, it appears in italics in most editions of the Authorized King James Version.

 

Given these two facts of the original Greek of the Scripture verses, the verse in Romans 13:4 makes complete sense in English without the death penalty.

 

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for government beareth not the power of judicial punishment in vain: for it is the minister of God, a revenger to carry out wrath upon him that doeth evil.

 

The verse is a mandate for retributive punishment on evildoers; but it contains no mandate for the death penalty. Rather, it supports the power of legitimate government by judicial authority to impose punishment for crimes.

 

You also quote Genesis 9, the so-called Rule of Blood as God's mandate for capital punishment. That verse reads:

 

"Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." New International Version This verse is included in God's blessing of Noah and his family. Genesis 9:1-7

 

A quick reading of this verse without study could create the impression that the Rule of Blood is God's command that the entire world must use the death penalty; however, there are some major problems with that conclusion.

 

First, the text is in poetic form which was never used for biblical law.

 

Second, American Christians only intend to treat this as God's command for capital punishment in the case of first-degree murder. But if these verses are actually God's command to execute those who take human life, there is no basis for any limitation in the text itself. If God is commanding the use of executions in these verses, then their plain reading seems to cover all taking of human life: accidents, negligent homicide, even self-defense. To my knowledge, no Christians in America support such broad mandate for the application of the death penalty under the Rule of Blood. Yet, there is no Scriptural basis for applying it at all unless it is unlimited. There is no intellectual integrity in claiming it is God's mandate and then rewriting it to our liking.

 

Third, there is no rational basis to explain why the words in the Rule of Blood are God's explicit command to be followed literally, but the other portions of this set of verses, called the Noahic blessing, are not to be taken literally or treated as binding law: e.g., the prohibition on consumption of rare meat, or the statement that any animal which kills a human must be executed.

 

Finally, if the Rule of Blood is indeed God's command, God's perfect will, that anyone who kills another human being must be executed, God would surely apply this uniformly because God is infinitely just. Consequently, a prominent first-degree, premeditated murderer after the blessing of Noah's family but before the handing down of the Mosaic Law would have to be executed.

 

What does the Bible report as God's punishment for the most significant and prominent first-degree murderer during that period, under the Rule of Blood?

 

That person in the Bible is none other than Moses. And God deals with Moses the same way God dealt with Cain: banishment from society. Our modern term for such banishment is prison.

 

God seems quite consistent in the biblical record of His dealings with Cain and Moses. And He did not execute either one.

 

You also have used the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ as biblical support for the American death penalty. You are not alone. Many pro-death penalty people of biblical faith like to quote the following passage from the Gospel of John as biblical proof that Jesus supports the death penalty. I used to quote it for that reason as well. The scene is the trial of Jesus before Pilate:

 

So Pilate said to him, "Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?"

 

Jesus answered [him], "You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above."

 

The pro-death penalty biblical argument stops right there and fails to quote the rest of what Jesus said. The entire exchange reads as follows:

 

So Pilate said to him, "Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?"

 

Jesus answered [him], "You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above. For this reason the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin." John 19:10-11

 

This full text can hardly be claimed as Jesus' support for capital punishment. Sin is not the word used in Scripture to describe an act that is virtuous. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that Pilate's reaction was based upon what Jesus said:

 

Consequently, Pilate tried to release him." John 19:12

 

The execution of the innocent is no small issue for biblical Christians. Exodus 23:7 warns us not to be involved with the execution of the innocent. Jesus Christ warns us in the verses quoted above not to be involved in the execution of the innocent.

 

Yet, as noted in the U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion in Marsh v. Kansas, authored by pro-death penalty Justice Clarence Thomas, abolition of the death penalty in the U.S. is the only way to avoid the execution of the innocent. (Slip opinion at p. 17) In a concurring opinion, Justice Scalia attacks any concern about execution of the innocent. First, he implies that such a concern would in fact end the death penalty in the U.S. Then he says: "Like other human institutions, courts and juries are not perfect. One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly. That is a truism, not a revelation." (Concurring opinion, at p. 19)

 

Such a truism when the penalty is years in prison may not rise to the level of biblical condemnation. But as shown above, that truism is soundly condemned by Scripture when the penalty is death.

 

Those pro-death penalty positions of Justices Thomas and Scalia cannot be supported as biblical positions. Those are mere political positions. The Bible rails against the execution of the innocent.

 

True scholars of the Bible know this. On May 22, 2008, I appeared on a radio show on Inter-Faith Voices opposite Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. The moderator addressed him with the first question:

 

Moderator: "Just to clarify your position, do you argue that a state or a nation must have the death penalty or that it is morally permissible if it so chooses?"

 

Dr. Mohler responded correctly:

 

"… I would not say that it is absolutely mandated that a society must do this. But certainly it is permissible.…

 

In his next answer, Dr, Mohler, went on to qualify that permissibility:

 

Moderator: "So, you would see it [the death penalty] as preferable, perhaps?"

 

Dr. Mohler: "Yes. With all the conditions being met for the penalty to be just in its application. With all the right kind of structures for the right conducting of trial and the establishment of guilt and all the rest."

 

Dr. Mohler's answer was exactly correct. The problem is that with respect to the U.S. death penalty those conditions are not met, the right kind of structures do not exist, and the biblical standard of absolute certainty of guilt is not the standard for execution in any U.S. system: federal, military or state.

 

Mr. Michaels, my biblical studies in this area led me to actually reconstruct the death penalty in the Bible the way a lawyer would-procedural and substantive law. I identified 44 absolute legal requirements of the biblical death penalty in order to comply with the dictates of Scripture. Then, I took the American death penalty and compared it to the list. We are zero for 44!

 

The only possible conclusion based upon what is actually in the Bible and the Scriptural requirements for permissible use of the death penalty is that we cannot support the U.S. death penalty with the Bible. There is a death penalty in the Bible-but it has nothing to do with what we are doing in America. And we cannot use the Bible to support the American death penalty.

 

I would not expect you or anyone else just to take my word for it. That is why I wrote the scholarly book: The Biblical Truth about America's Death Penalty. It is available on Amazon. Please read it and then I look forward to your questions and your comments.

 

My dear Christian friend, God bless you, protect you and keep you strong.

 

Yours faithfully,

 

Dale S. Recinella, J.D., M.T.S.
Catholic Lay Chaplain
Florida Death Row

 


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The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony

Posted by Zac Stone on March 22nd, 2011
Franky Carrillo, celebrating upon his release from prison.

A man who served 20 years in a California prison for a drive-by killing he did not commit was released last week after eyewitnesses recanted their testimony and a judge overturned his conviction. The case of Francisco Carrillo highlights the deleterious effects eyewitness testimony can have on a defendant's chance of receiving justice. Though jurors tend to weigh eyewitness testimony heavily, more wrongful convictions are caused by misidentification by eyewitnesses than by all other factors combined.

In 1991, Scott Turner was a teenager and a member of the Neighborhood Crips gang. When faced with a "six-pack" of photos from the police after witnessing his friend's father shot dead in front of him, Turner identified rival gang member Francisco "Franky" Carrillo as the perpetrator. It was not until six months later that the other five teenaged boys who witnessed the crime were asked to identify the man, well after Turner had shared with his cohort which photo he selected. Dameon Sarpy, the victim's son, as well as Turner and three of the four other witnesses recanted earlier testimony in which they had all accused Carrillo with varying degrees of certainty.

The circumstances of Carrillo's case exemplify many of the issues that surround prosecutors relying heavily on eyewitness testimony. In what are considered the "system variables" affecting identification (those the criminal justice system can control), police procedures can and do contribute to misidentification. Law enforcement agencies frequently ask eyewitnesses to identify perpetrators from a six-pack, or six mug shots grouped on a page; witnesses often wrongly assume the perpetrator must be among the six options (not always because of instructions they may or may not receive), so many witnesses thrust into this situation engage in "relative judgment," in which they pick the individual that most closely resembles their memory of the perpetrator. This effect is exaggerated when police employ the "show-up," by presenting a witness with a suspect they've detained, sometimes in shackles surrounded by officers or in the backseat of a squad car. Law enforcement organizations argue that the show-up enables them to quickly release a suspect if he is not involved, but it is a natural inclination for a witness to assume guilt in such a situation, whether the suspect is a known gang member, a star athlete, or their neighbor. Not necessarily out of malice, but subconsciously or in an effort to close a case, law enforcement officials can also offer witnesses verbal suggestions or non-verbal cues that affect their memory of the event and perpetrator.

Witnesses have been known to change their description of a perpetrator after learning about a particular suspect, or to offer hesitant identifications from lineups only to assert certainty in court. The jury deadlocked in Carrillo's first trial, when Dameon Sarpy testified that he was "pretty sure" Carrillo was the shooter. Sarpy testified with confidence in Carrillo's next trial, which resulted in his conviction and two life sentences. Two decades later, Sarpy admitted that Scott Turner had told him whom to select, and Turner apologized in court and asked for Carrillo's forgiveness. After the recantations and a dramatic reenactment of the crime on a dark street in Lynwood, Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo was able to determine Carrillo's conviction had been wrongfully handed down.

Memory distortion in eyewitnesses can be caused by innumerable factors, however, not limited to those system variables. Included among the "estimator variables" (those outside the control of the criminal justice system) are distractions like a gun (called weapon focus) or inclement weather, lighting and location of the crime, race (particularly when a witness is of a different race than the assailant), and the stress felt during a crime, especially when the threat of violence is high. It is safe to say memories don't exist in isolation, but rather among other memories and thoughts and images that can interfere with one another. Memory is far from sacrosanct, yet juries give overwhelming preponderance to eyewitness testimony, which then results in wrongful convictions, just like Carrillo's.

Studies of inmates exonerated by DNA evidence performed by the Innocence Project have found that a full three quarters of post-conviction exonerations involve mistaken eyewitness identification testimony. As for its role in capital punishment, the Center on Wrongful Convictions studied eyewitness testimony in the cases of 86 defendants sentenced to death, but later exonerated, and found that misidentification played a major role in convicting more than half of them, and that eyewitness testimony was indeed the only evidence used against 38 percent of the defendants.

Certain safeguards can and should be put in place to ensure, for instance, that the composition of a lineup reflects the witness' description of a perpetrator, and does not allow the suspect to noticeably stand out. Officers administering photo and live lineups should be unaware of the suspect's identity - misidentification is drastically reduced when tests are administered blind, so to speak. Witnesses ought to be instructed thoroughly and made aware that the perpetrator may not be included among the lineup. Additionally, presenting suspects sequentially, and not all at once, has been shown to counteract the relative judgment witnesses engage in when faced with a select group of possible suspects. After identification, a witness should state their level of confidence in choosing one suspect, and the entire proceedings ought to be recorded from beginning to end, so the fallibility of memory may play a less significant role beyond the initial identification. By employing these precautions, we may slightly correct for our impressionable memories and keep more innocent people from landing in prison or dying at the hands of the state.

Moments after being released from a Los Angeles jail on March 16th, Franky Carrillo thanked his legal team (full disclosure: Ellen Eggers, all-star attorney with the state public defender's office, is on the DPF board of directors), and offered this understated, but apt summation, "It's been a long journey. Initially it started with an injustice, but finally justice has prevailed, and I'm excited," presumably to start his life after our justice system took it away so callously.

Innocent people who find themselves accused of crimes rarely expect prison time and generally trust in the system to mete out justice fairly, but those without a crack legal team and a sympathetic judge, like Carrillo 20 years ago, may very well find it difficult overcoming long entrenched flaws in our justice system.

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Georgia Department of Corrections Illegally Imports Lethal Injection Drug

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on March 16th, 2011

Earlier this week we noted the mounting difficulty states are having procuring lethal injection drugs after pharmaceutical companies began deliberately pulling their products off the market to ensure they wouldn’t be used in executions. For Georgia this crisis escalated today when their cache of lethal injection drugs was raided by the DEA after allegations came to light that the Department of Corrections was possibly not in compliance with regulatory laws when it imported its shipment of the sedative thiopental.

Given the dwindling supply of the drug in response to the de facto drug company boycott, the Department of Corrections had to take extraordinary measures to procure it – contacting a foreign company directly to cut a deal. The Department wired the company $340.41 in exchange for 50 vials of the sedative, but neither party declared the shipment to the DEA, possibly violating the Federal Controlled Substance Act.

In a macabre way, it is almost comical how far out of our way we are willing to go to kill our inmates. Should we pause to reconsider the death penalty when nearly every drug company – the only entities that could stand to profit from an execution – cease producing thiopental in protest of capital punishment? Should we reconsider the death penalty after innocent inmates are exonerated? Or perhaps when the alternative punishment of life without parole achieves the same goals at a fraction the cost? On a certain level it is curious that, to some, the illegal importation of a schedule III drug from another country makes more sense than abolition.




An Open Letter to Governor Jerry Brown: Smart on Crime Solutions to the Budget

Posted by on March 16th, 2011

Originally appeared in The Los Angeles Sentinel on March 11, 2011

Dear Governor Jerry Brown,

In 1992, several key organizers in the Watts Community, including myself, organized a peace treaty between warring gangs in Los Angeles that changed the quality of life in our community. You are no stranger to our work in Watts. When Dwayne Holmes, an anti-violence activist from the Imperial Court Housing Projects, was wrongly accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit, you came out of retirement and advocated for his release. As a result, we developed a deep, personal relationship.

In the summer of 1996, my family and I spent several days at your home in Jack London Square. My son Terrell was 11 years old then. I remember him climbing into your loft and listening to you talk about the importance of public safety on your "We the People" radio show. He never forgot that. When we visited the State Capitol for the first time, he urged me to take him to see your picture in the Gallery of Governors. He said to me, "Dad, he's one of the good guys. If he was Governor now, he would help you stop the killing." I said, "Yes he would, son."

On January 10th, 2004, my world changed when Terrell, home from his first semester at Humboldt State University, was murdered. Even though he had never been involved with a gang, he became a victim of the random gang violence prevalent in our community.

The same year my son was murdered, the Attorney General's office released its annual report, Homicides in California. The report presented a disturbing picture of violence among African Americans in Los Angeles County. The African American homicide rate was more than twelve times that of whites and more than three times that of Hispanics. Though African Americans only represented 6.7 percent of the population, they comprised an alarming 32.1 percent of homicide victims in California. Los Angeles County had the second highest murder rate in California. Similar statistics are found in the homicide reports released during your tenure as Attorney General.

Today, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Los Angeles has seen a decrease in gang violence and homicide over the past twenty years due to the continued efforts of gang intervention and prevention workers, but we need more programs and services for at-risk youth. Unfortunately, social services like these are usually among the first services thrown on the chopping block during budget crises.

Before releasing your recent budget proposal, you warned that deep cuts to social services would be made across the board. You also promised that everything would be on the table. However, one particular money pit has remained not just unscathed, but also unexamined: the death penalty.

Each year, the death penalty costs California taxpayers $126 million more than it would cost if all of those currently on death row were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. On top of that, taxpayers will spend $400 million if construction of a colossal new death row housing facility moves forward. All together, we will waste $1 billion over the next five years on the death penalty.

When I imagine how to keep my surviving children and grandchildren safe, the death penalty does not come to mind. Violence prevention, education, mental healthcare, and other social services are what make a real difference in our communities. Let's protect our youth from random violence, especially African Americans growing up in urban war zones, by putting our state's limited resources to better use. Our state budget must reflect our communities' values and needs.

We all know that times are tough and difficult choices need to be made. Governor, please honor Terrell. Prove you're still one of the good guys. Cut California's death penalty.

# # #

Aqeela Sherrills is one of the original organizers of the Watts "gang truce" in 1992 and is currently the Southern California Outreach coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

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Inmate Executed with Animal Drug

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on March 14th, 2011

Yesterday Ohio became the first state in history to execute a man using a drug normally reserved for animal euthanasia. Before this execution, states had traditionally employed a three injection cocktail that would anesthetize the inmate, stop his breathing, and then stop his heart. In January, however, the company that produced one of those crucial drugs announced it would cease distribution. Hospira, the drug manufacturer, publicly stated that it did not condone capital punishment, and that since it was impossible to ensure that its drugs would not be used in executions, it was pulling its product off the market entirely.

Ohio then sought alternatives, eventually deciding to abandon the three drug approach in favor of a single lethal dose of the barbiturate pentobarbital. This move, however, created a row with that drug’s manufacturer, H. Lundbeck: “It’s against everything we stand for,” a company spokesman said, “we invest and develop medicine with the aim of alleviating people’s burden. This is the direct opposite of that.”

The opposition to Baston’s execution didn’t stop there. Peter Mah, the son of Baston’s victim, publicly voiced his family’s opposition to the execution and capital punishment in general. Mah said that Baston’s execution will not bring back his father and will not alleviate his family’s suffering. The Mah family went even further, backing up their words with a formal request to the Ohio Parole Board that Baston’s sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. Their request was unanimously denied.

In death penalty cases at least someone is supposed to benefit from the execution. Here, however, it appears as though not a single individual came out ahead. The drug companies vehemently opposed the use of their products, the victim’s family actively tried to stop the execution, and the Bastons eventually lost a family member. Society would have been equally shielded from any future dangerousness if Baston had instead been sentenced to life without parole. From what I can tell, Ohio just spent millions of dollars to go out of its way to do something with no marginal benefit that no one wanted to do in the first place.




In the Wake of Victory, Defeat

Posted by Margo Schulter on March 11th, 2011

Having celebrated the great victory for human rights in Illinois, we must now mourn and protest the execution in Ohio of Johnnie Baston, carried out despite the generous and courageous request for clemency by the family of his victim, Chong-Hoon Mah.

Much news coverage is focusing on the novel pharmacology of this state killing: a single-drug protocol using sodium pentobarbital, often favored as an agent in animal euthanasia. While the question of how best and most "humanely" to cold-bloodedly kill a subdued prisoner in fact highlights that there is no right way to do the wrong thing, let's focus instead on the people whom Illinois Governor Pat Quinn embraced so movingly in his statement yesterday, but whom the Ohio Parole Board and Governor John Kasich disregarded in their lethal decision: the victim's family.

Chong Hoon-Mah, a South Korean journalist who immigrated to the United States and became the owner of a wig store in Toledo, Ohio, was brutally murdered during an armed robbery of his store in 1994. His death by a bullet to the head at point-blank range was described as an "execution-style murder."

But his son, Peter Mah of Chicago, and other members of his family didn't want the added tragedy of a new premeditated killing: that of the convicted killer, Johnnie Baston. As Mah explained:

"The death of Johnnie Baston isn't going to do anything that's going to bring back our father, give us any closure or gratification."

Peter Mah accordingly signed an affidavit as a representative of his family asking that Baston's death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. At the clemency hearing this February, Ohio prosecutor Mary Sue Barone, who helped convict Baston of the crime in 1995, spoke on behalf of the Mah family:

"I have the utmost respect for anybody who could be so magnanimous and big-hearted and full of faith to rise above what the popular faith would be: Go get 'em, an eye for an eye."

In fact, when members of the public are invited in scientific polls to pause and consider the alternative, the "popular faith" favors permanent imprisonment or life without parole rather than execution, and overwhelmingly so when life without parole is coupled with restitution to the victim's family and society.

As Peter Mah explained earlier this year, he and his family are focused on healing:

"We just try to go on as normally as possible. We discuss this issue every once in a while, but we don't want it to take over our lives again. It seems that it's out of our hands so there's really nothing that we can do now."

These words eloquently express the position of many family members of murder victims against the death penalty who may feel powerless to halt the machinery of state-sponsored homicide.

However, one detail that gives cause for hope and renewed resistance is that Peter Mah is a resident of Chicago's Lincoln Park, where Governor Quinn's historic bill-signing ceremony yesterday has liberated Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, from the specter of more senseless state killings. Together, we are not powerless: can Ohio, and California, be far behind?

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Illinois Says No to Capital Punishment

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on March 9th, 2011

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill today which made his state the 16th to abolish its death penalty (Take action to thank him now).  The bipartisan bill, which passed the state legislature in January, commutes the sentences of Illinois’ 15 death row inmates to life without parole, and reallocates the funding previously slotted for capital defense to law enforcement training and increased restitution for victims’ families.  

Quinn’s decision is the culmination of years of public debate that has been raging since at least 2000 when then Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions.  For Governor Ryan, the state’s system looked increasingly broken, and the probability that innocents would be executed was too great to keep moving forward with capital punishment absent serious modifications. In the following eleven years, the state created two study commissions and attempted to implement multiple reforms to resolve these concerns, but found that such efforts were both ineffective and too costly.  Governor Quinn’s decision marks an awareness of the diminishing returns intrinsic to the already extremely expensive system, as attempts to make capital punishment ‘fair’ were always going to be more costly and less effective than abolition.  As Quinn put it, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.”  He went on to note that in a world of limited resources, it was wiser policy to take “the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system [and spend them] on preventing crime and assisting victims’ families in overcoming their pain and grief.”

Quinn did not make this decision lightly, as shown by the two-month wait between the bill’s passage and his signing it into law.  He carefully considered arguments from supporters and opponents, taking a particularly hard look at the feelings of the family members of murder victims.  In his statement, the Governor acknowledged the unimaginable heartache that accompanies losing a loved one and made clear that he understood and could not blame families for desiring retribution.  His decision to sign the bill, however, was motivated by numerous conversations with families who felt that the death penalty only prolonged their pain and suffering.  By ensuring that murderers are locked away for life, Illinois’ policy will help victims avoid years of painful hearings while also providing the state with the funding necessary to prevent similar crimes before they happen.

Illinois decision to abolish should be understood as part of a national trend away from capital punishment, as it is the fourth state in as many years to end its death penalty.  New Jersey and New York both removed all their prisoners from death row as of 2007, with New Mexico following suit two years later.  Today finds the fewest number of states’ practicing capital punishment since its reinstatement in 1978, and it appears as though the number could drop even lower as several other states are currently considering abolition with bills in various stages of debate in Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, and Washington.  

Governor Quinn’s decision should provide inspiration for death penalty opponents nation-wide, as his actions show that there is nothing inevitable about capital punishment.  As concerns over the cost and fairness of the death penalty rise, public opinion has swung increasingly against it, suggesting that a post-death penalty America may soon be a reality.  Illinois is not the first or last step in the process, but it is an important one nonetheless, as each victory adds momentum to the push for more effective alternatives to capital punishment.




The Skinner Decision

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on March 9th, 2011

Earlier this week a US Supreme Court decision allowed a death row inmate to sue to gain access to DNA evidence that could prove his innocence. Hank Skinner, the condemned man, was stuck in a legal no man’s land between the two avenues generally used in such cases. While Mr. Skinner initially tried employing a federal civil rights law known as Section 1983, the lower Courts ruled that he should have instead filed a petition for habeas corpus. Habeas corpus, however, would not have been appropriate in this case either, as inmates file habeas petitions when they seek “immediate or speedier release from confinement.” Mr. Skinner, however, was simply asking for access to evidence that could prove his innocence.

Skinner was, in essence, left with no legal remedy to his situation. The Court’s decision fixed this problem by permitting Skinner to file his suit in court under Section 1983. In her opinion, Justice Ginsberg noted that the decision does not necessarily imply that Skinner should win his lawsuit, simply that he has a right to file one. This case exposes an unsettling gap in our justice system’s prosecution of capital murder cases. In his 1972 opinion for Furman v. Georgia, Justice Stewart noted that the death penalty differs from all other forms of punishment “not in degree, but in kind.” With this concession that “death is different,” the Court called for a heightened level of scrutiny and due diligence in capital cases.

In Mr. Skinner’s case, the prosecutor argued that the DNA testing would impose “unacceptable burdens” on the government and victims, and that “no item of evidence exists that would conclusively prove that Skinner did not commit the murder.” This curious wording flirts with the implication that the burden of proof rests with the defendant rather than the prosecutor. By giving Skinner the opportunity to argue his case, the Supreme Court has taken a crucial step toward ensuring that Justice Stewart’s standard is indeed adhered to. Given Skinner’s close call, however, I wonder if each of the 3,000+ inmates currently on death row in the United States has been given this satisfactory level of heightened scrutiny in their legal proceedings.





Gender Bias and the Death Penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on March 2nd, 2011

In an interesting new study, University of San Francisco Law School Professor Steven Shatz and New York Civil Liberties Union Attorney Naomi Shatz explore the relationship between gender and California's death penalty. While much scholarly attention has been devoted to the way that racial and class dynamics influence which crimes and criminals garner capital trials, similar analysis regarding the gender of victims and defendants is relatively scarce. In attempt to explain the gender disparities in capital cases, the Shatzes examine the "chivalric norms" embedded in the criminal justice system. Using new data collected from Californian first degree murder trials, their article, Chivalry Is Not Dead, looks at the way ideas about women's roles in society influence when juries and prosecutors decide the death penalty is a necessary remedy and then asks important questions about the constitutional ramifications of this "chivalry effect."

The Shatzes describe chivalry as the cultural norms and procedures which governed the behavior of knights in medieval Europe. These codes were meant to provide knights with the standards by which they could regulate their use of violence, limiting its expression to only those instances in which it was necessary to preserve honor and other knightly virtues. Central to these chivalric norms was a particular, gendered, relationship between the autonomous knight and the frequently agency-less maiden who was the object of his protection and for whose sake he could legitimately kill. There were no female knights; in fact, the prevailing social norms afforded women a role equivalent to that of a very valuable piece of property which, while it had to be defended at all cost, could also be used by the knight in whatever manner he saw fit. Chivalric codes saw women as lacking the physical, moral and intellectual fortitude to act as their own guardians, which, in turn, necessitated their control and management at the hands of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. There was also an important class element to these codes, as they only governed interactions between members of the knightly class-their social inferiors were not thought capable of harboring chivalric virtues, and thus did not deserve to benefit from them. The result was that chivalry was meant to protect only a certain type of woman, the "lady," who "embodied ideals and stereotypes of womanhood and femininity."

Chivalry did not die with the rise of the modern state, but instead was incorporated into the legal and social apparatuses of these new democracies, including our own. A particularly harrowing example can be found in the all too common lynching of black men who threatened the honor of white women in the post-reconstruction South. These values were also reflected in legal doctrine as seen in the Supreme Court's repeated finding that the exclusion of women from social life, be it legal practice (Bradwell v. State) or jury duty (Hoyt v. Florida), was constitutionally permissible given the state's justifiable interest in protecting women's functions as mothers and homemakers.

The tide began to turn in the 1970s, when feminist critics successfully challenged such restrictions on equal protection and Title VII grounds. While progress is being, and continues to be, made, chivalric norms are still very much alive in American jurisprudence, especially as regards our criminal justice system. The Shatzes highlight their presence in laws which govern justifiable homicide, noting that self-defense and crime of passion statutes have their historical roots in laws which permitted honor killings, and that the subject who defends himself or acts out of passion is implicitly assumed to be a male one who has both the physical and social ability to exercise violence in this way. They also locate these norms in rape laws which only punish certain types of rapes, targeting dangerous strangers who threaten women's virtue, while making it much harder to prosecute similar crimes committed by acquaintances or husbands.

The relationship between gender and the death penalty has generally been discussed in terms of the relative infrequency with which female defendants receive death sentences. The chivalry hypothesis advanced by the Shatzes helps explain this discrepancy, as the tendency to view women as less responsible for their actions causes legal decision-makers to want to protect female defendants from the full force of the law. The hypothesis would also suggest that crimes against women would be more likely to result in death sentences as these murders represent attempts to defile the pristine womanhood which is one of society's most valuable resources.

To test their predictions, the Shatzes analyze data from 1299 cases of defendants convicted of first-degree murder in California from 2003 to 2005. California provides a particularly interesting test case, as the wide latitude prosecutors and juries are afforded to decide when to impose a death sentence allows us to look at the effects of cultural norms on decision-making in a way which is not possible in states with stricter guidelines. In roughly 85% of the studied cases, the defendant was factually death-eligible given the relatively wide range of special circumstances that California law recognizes as justifying the death penalty. Of that 85%, 5.5% of defendants received death sentences.

As predicted, women were rarely seen in that 5.5 %. Of the 51 women defendants in the sample, only one received a death sentence, and her crime, poisoning her husband, violated the chivalric codes which emphasize equal combat between equal adversaries. While this result might be too small to generalize, when synthesized with other studies, the Shatzes found that only 1.2% of California death sentences went to women defendants even though they comprised 5.5% of the death-eligible population. Moreover, those women who were sentenced to death were generally from society's margins and otherwise broke with the conventional definitions of womanhood.

Even more striking was the way the victim's gender affected the likelihood of the death penalty's imposition. In single-victim cases where the victim was female, the defendant was seven times more likely to receive a death sentence then if the victim was male. This finding was consistent with results from other, earlier, studies. The disparity persisted even when rape-murders, which are unusually likely to result in death sentences (and have primarily female victims), and gang murders, which have unusually low death-sentence rates (and have primarily male victims), were excluded from the analysis. The analysis also showed that this tendency to sentence the killers of women to death did not extend to instances of domestic violence where the percentage of death sentences was below the average for single-victim murders. Taken together, the study shows that the killers of women are more likely to be executed, and that this difference is too large to be explained simply by other distinctions in the types of murders which take female victims versus those that do not.

The Shatzes conclude by noting that the way we impose the death penalty is a product of social mores which reinforce a view of women as both less responsible for their actions and less capable of defending themselves. The finding flies in the face of the post-Fuhrman promise that the death penalty would be applied in a rational and non-arbitrary way, and in fact suggests new equal protection concerns which face those accused with capital crimes. While the essay only hints at what new legal strategies their findings make available to death penalty opponents, the Shatzes' work provides valuable insight into the dynamics which characterize the way the death penalty is actually implemented. Their research not only helps to build bridges between feminist legal scholars and anti-death penalty advocates, but also holds up a mirror to the way the death penalty reflects and magnifies societal biases. It is only by becoming conscience of these effects that we can begin to combat them, and in this way Chivalry Is Not Dead makes an invaluable contribution.

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Oklahoma: State-sponsored murder-suicide repeats itself

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on February 24th, 2011

For the mass media, Oklahoma's December 16 execution of John David Duty was mainly notable for marking the first use of sodium pentobarbital, a drug often used in animal euthanasia, for the judicial homicide of a human being. The scarcity of the traditional execution drug sodium thiopental that led to this substitution is indeed newsworthy as it reflects the growing unwillingness of pharmaceutical firms and medical professionals to participate in executions, as well as the determination of abolitionist countries such as the United Kingdom and Italy to prevent the export or manufacture of such drugs for the purpose of state-sponsored killing.

However, the case of John David Duty is even more noteworthy because, like the case of Oklahoma prisoner James D. French who was executed in 1966, it is a textbook example of "suicide by execution," where a person commits murder in order to be executed. Far from "deterring" such murders, the prospect of suicide through state execution provides the main motive for the crime.

James French, the only prisoner executed in the US in 1966, had been convicted in 1958 of murdering a motorist, a crime motivated by a desire for suicide through execution, but received a life sentence instead. Then, on October 17, 1961, he strangled his cellmate Eddie Lee Shelton in order to secure his own death via Oklahoma's electric chair.

An interesting aspect of the case was the involvement of Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a psychiatrist at the University of Oklahoma Medical School who testified for the defense on the issue of French's possible insanity. This experience and others led West to become an eloquent opponent of the death penalty, pointing especially to the
murder-suicide syndrome and other brutalizing effects of state killing which actually serve to incite rather than deter murders.

Professor Katherine van Wormer at the University of Northern Iowa, like the late Dr. West, has found murder-suicide through execution to be a powerful argument against the death penalty. Indeed, there may be no sharp line between the indifference of many serial killers toward their own lives and those of their victims.
In fact, Dr. van Wormer's research indicates that the quest for suicide-by-execution which motivates killers such as French and Duty is often a solution to their own, failed attempts at suicide.

Like French, John David Duty was serving a life sentence, though his crime was not murder, but instead was a brutal combination of armed robbery, kidnapping, first degree rape, and shooting with intent to kill. Seeking an escape from serving his full sentence, Duty strangled his cellmate, Curtis Wise on December 13, 2001. He subsequently pled guilty to first degree murder, and requested the death penalty, waiving any presentation by his attorney of mitigating factors which might call for a sentence of life without parole.

While the prosecutor and courts of Oklahoma seemed quite ready to grant Duty his death wish, a powerful voice for life was the victim's mother, Mary Wise, who testified in the penalty phase for permanent imprisonment. Ms. Wise, like many families of murder victims, showed great courage in opposing the death penalty while seeking a higher justice for her son through Duty's proper punishment:

"I don't believe he ought to have a choice. I think he ought to sit in that cell and face those four walls and think about what he did for the rest of his natural-born life. And I hope and pray to God that you live to be 110 years old, because that's how long I want you to think about what you did."

Even the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, in affirming what the trial judge termed a "textbook case for the death penalty," recognized that the official machinery of death was evidently being used as a tool for murder-suicide:

"Duty is a long time prison resident who sees death as a better alternative to life without parole. The killing of his cellmate was a tool for his desire to die. Although it seems that Duty is using the state to assist him in suicide, the death penalty is clearly indicated in this case despite Duty's personal wishes."

In fact, by becoming a partner to Duty's murder-suicide pact, the State of Oklahoma not only granted this killer his wish and provided an ongoing incentive to kill for prisoners or others who may wish to follow in the footsteps of French and Duty, but has also disregarded the wisdom of the victim's mother.
In doing so, Oklahoma has brought itself down to Duty's murderous level, providing us with a brutalizing demonstration of how violence begets violence.

The Duty case demonstrates the necessity of adopting permanent imprisonment as society's ultimate sanction. This would at once render suicide-through-execution obsolete as a motive for murder, while at the same time it would allow us to spend our resources making our streets and prisons more safe and secure, as well as offering more adequate assistance to families of murder victims like the courageous Mary Wise.




Life Without Parole: The Soft Option?

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on February 24th, 2011

On February 8t of this year, 36 year-old Larry Countee received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in Chicago's Cook County Court. Countee earned this punishment for the terrible murders of his mother, grandmother and uncle and the attempted murder of his sister, all committed during his 2006 burglary of their family home.

In delivering this sentence, presiding Judge Marcus Salone commented that life in prison was harsher than execution, noting that "I have visited the penitentiary, and I would rather die than spend the rest of my life there…Mr. Countee is a young man who will for the balance of his life spend every day knowing exactly what he did". Two days later, Countee began this final chapter in his life at Crest Hill Illinois's Stateville Correctional Center.

While there are those who would argue that Countee should have received a death sentence, I believe that Judge Salone made the right decision. To see why this is, we should look at the sentence's impact on the individuals affected by it.

We should first consider Countee's victims: his teenage sister, aunt and the rest of his family. They have all suffered immensely, their "lives … shattered by the most horrific crime imaginable: Our entire family … dead." In the four years since the crime was committed, the family has had to struggle daily with the cases' lack of resolution. While nothing can restore their family and wipe away their pain, the family is now afforded the opportunity to begin moving on with their lives. Had Countee been sentenced to death, they would have been subjected to years of appeals and press attention that would reopen these old wounds, and ultimately would have had to face the traumatic execution of a man who is still a member of their family. Countee's life sentence allows them to go on without the shadow of appeals and execution hanging over their heads while still affording them the knowledge that this murderer will spend the rest of his life in the ignominy of a prison cell.

We should also consider the positions of all those people who are involved in executions, duty bound to take the life of another human being regardless of their personal beliefs. Even guards who support the death penalty mention the great stress they experience while participating in executions, and there are many prison chaplains, like Rev. Caroll Pickett, and wardens like Ron McAndrew, who have come to deeply regret the part they have played in this cruel charade. This pain that accompanies executing another human is enormous, and I believe no one should be put in this position. As 21st century citizens, we have socially and psychologically progressed beyond the rough justice of the past, when men like the United Kingdom's last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, took pride in carrying out their jobs with maximum efficiency. And, even then, it seems hard to believe that Pierrepoint and his ilk were not haunted in their later years by the faces of those they had killed. Why should all these people have to bear the brunt of one man's crime, especially when the best evidence suggests their actions have no real effect on preventing similar crimes in the future?

We should finally consider the fate of the convicted himself, and ask what future awaits Larry Countee. Death penalty proponents are eager to paint life without parole as being fairly cushy, with inmates living at the expense of the state, provided with adequate food, clothing, and, often, even television and a chance to exercise. Put like this, the punishment appears soft, even comfortable.

This account quickly losses its plausibility if one does even cursory research into the living conditions of death row inmates, who are frequently "warehoused" in isolation for the rest of their lives. In Illinois, where Countee will live out his sentence, the punishment means living in endless noise, sharing a cell intended for one inmate. An Illinois prisoner I correspond with described this stark reality, "I feel as if I'm in a coffin. There is no room to move around." There is no freedom for lifers: the sentence means you will never be able to have control over doors and windows, never have personal privacy (even when it comes to using the bathroom), and you will be the victim of body searches whenever you move any distance from your cell, which would also be liable to be searched in your absence. It is also a stretch to call prison food adequate, as you will be fed just enough to keep you alive, ensuring you are regularly hungry. Medical treatment is similarly scant: treatment is bare bones at best, and you no control over it, even when you the funds to pay for more.

There will be little quality of life for Mr. Countee who will never be allowed to take a walk or see the natural world. He will never have free communication with the outside world as phone and visiting opportunities are strictly limited, and computer access is prohibited. He will not be allowed to handle money. He will live in a noise-filled, cramped, and violent world of rules and regulations, having to rely on others for his every need. He has lost his freedom to live his life as he would and he will never have it again. I think this is as harsh a punishment as is imaginable in a civilized society.

One opportunity this harsh world does provide Mr. Countee is that of personal reflection-he will suffer every day for his terrible actions, and he will have all the time in the world to try to come to terms with what he did. This will take all his will power and will in no way be made easy for him, but the possibility for personal growth and reform does exist. In my ideal world this opportunity would be made more available to more inmates. My research has led me to a program in an Alabama prison which helps inmates do this type of soul-searching, and I believe the corrections system would do well to actively follow this model. To offer such opportunities would not cost Illinois any more than the cost of one death penalty trial, and the personal transformation which is its potential payoff is well worth it. After all, isn't this the ultimate goal of punishment--to make those we punish better citizens, even if they never leave the prison?

As Illinois's Governor Quinn debates over whether or not to sign the bill to abolish the death penalty that currently sits on his desk, I hope he takes into account all the perspectives I have discussed. By signing this bill, and ending capital punishment in Illinois, the Governor would not be letting inmates off easy. Instead, he would be forcing them to do the hard work of living with their crimes, while at the same time freeing up the time and money necessary to prevent violent crimes before they happen, and to more effectively deter them after they have been committed.

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Thiopental Drama May Delay Executions

Posted by Zac Stone on February 23rd, 2011
Would you buy so much as gauze from this driving school/pharmacy?

A quarter of the United States’ attorneys general, seven Democrats and six Republicans hailing largely from western and southern states, have asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for assistance from the Department of Justice in procuring sodium thiopental, the anesthetic most commonly used in executions.

Death penalty retentionist states have had trouble obtaining the drug since the sole U.S. manufacturer of thiopental stopped producing it and abolitionist European countries have made exporting it for executions nearly impossible.

The attorneys general asked Holder for help in “either identifying an appropriate source for sodium thiopental or making supplies held by the Federal Government available to the States.”

Recently two prisoners from Georgia and one from Arizona were put to death using thiopental purchased last year through a dingy, questionable pharmaceutical wholesaler in London by the name of Dream Pharma. It was reported that all three men – Emmanuel Hammond, Brandon Rhode, and Jeffrey Landrigan – were visibly conscious during their executions, having opened their eyes minutes after being injected with the defective anesthetic, and presumably experienced excruciating pain while pancuronium bromide was used to paralyze them and potassium chloride induced cardiac arrest. This aberration of justice amounts to torture and is most certainly in opposition to the Eight Amendment to the Constitution, which is supposed to protect prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment.

As reported here earlier, attorneys in the U.S. are suing the FDA for allowing the drug into the country without review; across the pond, Reprieve, an international death penalty abolition organization, has filed a legal challenge against the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). In its court action, Reprieve seeks to recall the thiopental supplied by Dream Pharma, which, if successful, would prevent U.S. corrections officials from unwittingly torturing condemned inmates as they did in Georgia and Arizona, by effectively halting executions in the states that purchased the ineffective drug from the one-man pharmaceutical supplier, including California, which bought enough degraded thiopental to botch over 85 executions.

An anesthesiologist at Columbia hospital in New York and expert witness in Reprieve’s lawsuit against the MHRA, Dr. Mark Heath, describes the recent executions in Georgia and Arizona as being “highly atypical…based on my studies of lethal injection, it is very unusual and surprising for a prisoner’s eyes to remain open after the efficacious administration of thiopental.” Heath makes clear that using defective sodium thiopental ensures an agonizing death for prisoners, who endure “asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium.”

While people will continue to debate the death penalty’s merits for many years, there is no question that subjecting prisoners to this brand of torture goes against an array of international human rights treaties and those rights protecting against cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed to all Americans by the U.S. Constitution. To use one more gram of these tainted thiopental stocks from overseas would call into question states’ abilities to ensure that justice can ever be fairly and reliably served.

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Report Makes Important Recommendations on Fixing a "Broken System"

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on February 23rd, 2011

This month marked the release of an important new report, Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Administration and Congress, which provides comprehensive analysis of the federal criminal justice system, and lays out extensive recommendations for reform. Coordinated by the non-partisan advocacy group the Constitution Project, the report brings together a diverse coalition of over 40 criminal justice organizations who apply their expertise to advising the Obama administration and the new congress on how to tackle the difficult problems facing our justice system. The report includes a thoroughly researched inquiry into the death penalty and provides insight into how to remedy the lack of constitutional safeguards which currently characterize the system.

The report's analysis of the death penalty begins by taking note of the severity of death as a method of punishment, arguing that because the death penalty is irreversible there is a premium on ensuring its application is fair and equitable. They go on to show that the system as currently constituted does not meet these constitutionally mandated standards, focusing on four major problems areas. The issues highlighted include the lack of adequate review of capital convictions, the significant racial bias in their application, the unfair targeting of the mentally ill as capital defendants, and the woefully insufficient legal representation of the indigent defendants who make up the lion's share of individuals we execute.

Despite persistent concerns about wrongful convictions in capital cases, recent legislation has only made it more difficult for Courts to review challenges to capital convictions. 1996's Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act has placed severe restrictions on defendants' abilities to seek habeas relief, particularly as those challenges pertain to defendants' claims of actual innocence. The incredibly narrow scope of acceptable petitions makes it close to impossible to correct many constitutional oversights that occur at the trial phase, substantially increasing the risk that innocent people will be executed. This problem is compounded by the fact that defendants frequently do not have access to legal counsel during post-conviction review which leaves them at the mercy of a legal system that has already invested considerable resources in proving their guilt. To insure adequate review, the report recommends attorney general action to provide defendants with counsel, as well as congressional and executive support of amendments to the AEDPA which would eliminate restrictive requirements on appeals.

The problem of racial bias regarding the death penalty has been well documented-a Department of Justice study has shown that 73 % of federal capital cases involve non-white defendants, and research has shown that 40 % of the death row population is African American despite their making up only 12 % of the country's general population. Bias occurs at all levels of the process, as prosecutors are more likely to seek death for white victims, non-white defendants are more likely to accused of capital crimes, and they are less likely to receive pleas which take death off the table. DOJ regulations which ensure that the U.S. Attorney General must review all death-eligible cases contribute to this problem by overly centralizing the process, ensuring an alarmingly small number of people get to make the decision about which cases are worth prosecuting. The report suggests that the first step towards confronting this imbalance is to ensure adequate documentation of the problem which is why independent commissions must be erected to review the relationship between race and capital conviction. Additionally, legislative and executive action must be taken to eliminate racial discrimination in capital cases, including eliminating the excessive peremptory challenges that enable prosecutors to try minority defendants in front of all-white juries. The DOJ should also decentralize its review process to ensure that more eyes take a look at each case, thus increasing the opportunity to catch unjust prosecutions before they happen.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles and the mentally retarded lack the decision-making competence to be sentenced to death, similar protections have not been extended to the mentally ill who make up an alarmingly high percentage of death row inmates. These individuals frequently lack the self-awareness and control necessary to really understand or govern their behavior, which raises significant ethical questions about considering them fit for execution. The report recommends that Congress change U.S. code to explicitly prohibit the application of the death penalty to these individuals and that the Justice Department similarly commits to not pursue death in these cases.

The final area examined by the report is the lack of representation for capital defendants who generally amongst the poorest members of American society. These indigent defendants often have very limited access to counsel, and when they do, their attorneys are very often under-trained, overworked, and lack the independence necessary to adequately represent their clients. Given the vast resources the state and federal governments commit to capital prosecutions, this disequilibrium should give us pause as the risk that innocents are sentenced to die greatly increases when their lawyers are either unable or unwilling to provide them with meaningful defense. The congress is in the position to begin correcting this problem by increasing the independence of indigent defenders so that they can build their cases without interference from bosses who are also prosecutors. The report thus suggests starting, and adequately funding, an office of the Defender General which would supervise defense attorneys in these cases and provide them with the resources necessary to give defendants a fair shot at fighting their convictions.

While the best way to correct the flaws with the death penalty would be to stop applying it all, the Smart on Crime recommendations represent an important step in the right direction which should be embraced by capital punishment opponents. In addition to providing immediate relief to those currently facing capital charges, these reforms provide the building blocks for the creation of a more just and equitable criminal justice system. Research has consistently shown that one of the main contributing factors to support for the death penalty is citizen's relative ignorance on the subject; in this light, we can see the report and reforms it advocates as playing an important consciousness raising function. By forcing government officials and the public at large to think seriously about the flaws that plague the death penalty, the Smart on Crime report helps direct attention to just how broken the system is which will add increased urgency and support for the search for more effective alternatives.

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Victims Fund Shortfall Highlights Absurdity of California's Death Penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on February 16th, 2011

California’s victims restitution fund is running out of money. Since its conception in 1965, the California Victim Compensation Program has served as a source of financial relief for crime victims and their families who would not otherwise be able to pay their medical bills and other expenses engendered by the crime. Unfortunately, mounting costs are threatening the programs survival as requests for payment have begun to rapidly outstrip the state’s ability to collect the fines from misdemeanor and felony convictions that keep it running. At the current rate, insolvency seems inevitable as the fund’s debt will reach upwards of $30 million in as little as two years.

In the face of these impending shortfalls, state officials have gathered to consider cost cutting measures, though they estimate that even if the state goes ahead with proposed reductions, the program will still face major financial challenges because of the sheer number of crime victims who are entitled to assistance. To make matters worse, the state has consistently borrowed money from the fund as it attempts to combat its myriad other money problems.

If the state no longer has the cash necessary to help the victims of crimes, this raises the question of what criminal justice programs it deems worth funding in these lean times. Its answer apparently includes spending more than $ 137 million a year to maintain our system of capital punishment. The state is pouring new funds into the death penalty, including a planned $ 400 million on a state-of-the-art death row at San Quentin. These expenditures are not inevitable; in fact, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimates that the state could save as much as $ 125 million a year by commuting all of California’s death sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

In a time when our state’s purse strings are being drawn tighter than ever, every dollar spent is one that is not being spent someplace else.  It is unconscionable that California is willing to give millions to execute individuals at what is, at best, debatable benefit to crime victims when those dollars could be used to help the same victims cover costs they have no other way of meeting.  If we are really serious about our commitment to those who have suffered at the hands of criminals, it is time to take a hard look at the death penalty and the enormous financial sacrifices we must make to maintain it.

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Montana Closer to Abolishing the Death Penalty

Posted by Zac Stone on February 15th, 2011

Montana's state senate took a giant leap forward for human rights this week, passing a bill by a narrow margin that would permanently abolish the death penalty in the state.

Supporters of the bill to repeal the death penalty argued that the risk of putting an innocent person to death is simply too high, the financial costs are overwhelming, and the system disproportionately punishes minorities and the poor.

The most emotional pleas in support of the bill came from the loved ones of crime victims, like Diana Cote, whose teenage daughter was murdered in 2007. "The thing that hurt me worst was when people would come up to me and ask [if I wanted to seek] the death penalty." Cote continued, "I said, this person just murdered my daughter and you're asking me if I want to go out and murder him now?" During debate on the bill, its sponsor Sen. David Wanzenried of Missoula added that the necessary and lengthy death penalty appeals  process deprives victims' families of the closure that an immediate sentence of life without parole offers, saying too, "Our current system can't be made fair and it can't be made infallible."

Illinois death row exoneree Randy Steidl also made an impassioned argument against the death penalty, emphasizing the risks of sentencing innocent people to death, as he was once sentenced. Steidl and 19 others were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated from Illinois's death row; their cases influenced Illinois's legislature to pass a bill abolishing the death penalty there earlier this year. Gov. Pat Quinn has until March 18 to sign the bill into law.

Abolition in Montana now faces a huge hurtle in the state house of representatives, where it needs more than tacit support from the overwhelming Republican majority in order to pass. If legislators aren't swayed by the financial aspect - prosecuting capital cases in Montana costs six to seven times more than the $36,000 is costs to simply house an inmate for a year - then hopefully they will heed the impassioned calls of death row exonerees and crime victims' families for abolishing this most unjust punishment.
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Wrongful Convictions and Posthumous Exoneration

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on February 15th, 2011

For even the most ardent supporters of capital punishment, the issue of wrongful convictions presents a challenge which demands serious attention.  While the growing innocence movement has used many different strategies, one tool which receives inadequate attention is posthumous exoneration.  As Professor Samuel Wiseman forcefully argues in a upcoming article for the Case Western Law Review, these exonerations can give advocates the hard to come by evidence about why and how wrongful convictions occur, and can provide us with insights necessary to institute the reforms to prevent them in the future.

While the innocence movement has existed in one form or another for almost as long as the U.S.’s criminal justice system, it began to take its current shape in 1987 when Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet published their influential study Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases which documented 350 cases in which individuals had been imprisoned for crimes of which they were factually innocent.  The public interest in wrongful conviction sparked by their work was given a big push two years later when Gary Dotson became the first prisoner to have his conviction overturned on the basis of DNA evidence.  DNA tests have become an invaluable resource as they are able to provide a much higher degree of certainty regarding the defendant’s innocence then was previously available.  As a result, there has been a significant increase in exonerations as DNA tests have led to the freeing of an average of 18 people a year from 2000-2009. 

Exoneration has been incredibly important for those who oppose capital punishment—since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 138 death row inmates have had their convictions overturned.  While wrongful conviction is prevalent throughout the criminal justice system, many factors, including the difficulty of investigating capital crimes, the strong motivation for guilty parties to frame others, and society’s demand for quick and harsh punishment, make it disproportionately likely in capital cases.  While organizations like the Innocence Project put tireless effort into remedying these miscarriages of justice, there have been at least ten instances since 1976 when the state put an innocent to death.  Posthumous exonerations can help us ensure that these tragedies never happen again.

There have been five posthumous exonerations in the United States, and three of those cases involved death row inmates who died in prison prior to their execution date.  Because data on wrongful conviction is relatively scarce, exonerations are an important resource for pinpointing where breakdowns in the system occur.  Posthumous exonerations are particularly helpful in this regard because the lack of a living defendant eliminates public uneasiness about releasing supposed criminals, and allows the debate to focus squarely on the social ramifications of wrongful conviction.  These procedures can also help provide a measure of relief to family members of both defendants and crime victims, as well as generally increasing public confidence in a justice system which is frequently perceived as dangerously unwilling to admit its mistakes.

While posthumous exonerations have many benefits, the process is not perfect.  The largest problem is they are very difficult to make happen, as a legal doctrine called abatement provides a strong presumption in favor of the cases of deceased defendants.  Other concerns include a variety of jurisdictional issues that face courts, as well as a tendency, borne out in post-execution hearings regarding the likely innocence of Cameron Todd Willingham, of state officials to politicize the process and willfully disrupt hearings that look as though they might produce unfavorable results. 

These issues highlight the need for advocates to put pressure on their elected officials to establish innocence commissions and otherwise expand opportunities for courts or similar bodies to hear claims of actual innocence.  While there is much discussion of the particular form that these policies should take, what is crucial is that we work to provide a forum in which all potentially meritorious innocence claims can be heard and thoroughly investigated. 

An informed debate about the death penalty cannot occur without access to the facts.  Posthumous exonerations provide an important source of information about how the death penalty is practiced, and force proponents to come face to face with the human cost of the errors intrinsic to the system.

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The Expensive, Arbitrary and Inefficient State of the Death Penalty in California

Posted by Stefanie on February 11th, 2011

One of DPF's Board Members (aka "Lovechilde") is at it again. Check out his latest blog on the death penalty at Justia.com. He concludes:

 "Rather than perpetuating this expensive, arbitrary and inefficient state program, wouldn’t we be better off replacing the death penalty with life sentences, and focusing on crime prevention, crime solving and assistance to crime victims? Just do the math."

We think so.  Maybe that's why we like him so much.

Posted in Blog, Cost, Race, Sentencing | no comments



Judge visits new execution chamber in ongoing lethal injection controversy

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on February 9th, 2011

This Tuesday marked an important development in the legal battle over California's lethal injection protocol as U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel inspected San Quentin State Prison's newly constructed execution chamber. Judge Fogel's visit comes as part of his supervision of the case of Michael Morales who has challenged the constitutionality of California's method for administering the death penalty, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Mr. Morales has been sentenced to death for the 1981 rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Lynn Winchell. He was scheduled to be executed in 2006 before Judge Fogel ruled that California's execution protocol posed an undue risk of causing unconstitutionally painful death. The ruling identified many serious flaws in the procedure, including inadequate screening and training of execution team members, unreliable and haphazard methods for preparing the anesthetic used in the lethal injection cocktail, and poor lighting and dangerously overcrowding in the execution chamber itself. The Court did provided the state with its choice of remedies, ruling that prison officials must either hire physicians to be present during executions so that someone with medical expertise could intervene if it appeared that anesthesia had failed, or, alternatively, that inmates must be directly injected by a corrections officer to ensure that all components of the cocktail were properly administered. While the state initially chose the former option, it was unable to find doctors willing to be so intimately involved in the procedure. Because prison officials were unwilling to perform the injections themselves, Judge Foley was forced to suspend all executions while the state tried to overhaul its system to avoid potential constitutional challenges.

Five years later Judge Foley has returned to the prison he initially declared unfit to carry out executions. In the meantime, California has introduced a new set of procedures that are currently being reviewed in state court. The state has also spent almost one million dollars on the new facility and plans to commit millions more to expanding the size of the prison's death row. Unfortunately for state prison officials, this exuberance seems misplaced, as both the pending state legal challenges, as well as a shortage of the key execution anesthetic, sodium thiopental, mean that the new facilities may never be used. California's eagerness to appear tough on crime has once again caused us to adopt policies which make no sense fiscally, only adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars a year we spend on capital punishment over what it would cost to commute all sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

While Fogel's impending ruling may not entirely resolve the questions facing California's lethal injection protocol, the careful consideration he has given the matter should give hope to those of us who have serious concerns about the death penalty. We can only hope that this hard look at how it is we actually execute prisoners will spark further efforts to develop more effective, and humane, alternatives.

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Still A Long Way to go

Posted by Yoko on February 4th, 2011

Recently the Japanese prime minister appointed a new minister of justice, Satsuki Eda, who is personally opposed to the death penalty. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/01/15/3113514.htm?section=justin

While this is good news, there have been several ministers of justice in the past who were opposed to the death penalty, who still signed death warrants. Therefore, we shouldn’t assume Eda’s personal position will necessarily cause him to act differently. Also Eda recently apologized for his remarks criticizing the death penalty system and announced that he’d like to withdraw the remarks even though he still feels that the system is flawed.

I believe having a justice minister who opposes the death penalty is not enough to sway public opinion; there will need to be other powerful incentives to change public sentiment.

After careful consideration, I believe the following changes need to be made before Japan can successfully move towards abolition:

First, the introduction of “a life without possibility of parole sentence” is extremely crucial because no such option exists in Japan.  Without this option, people will continue to prefer the death penalty to life in prison with a chance of parole when it comes to people who have committed heinous crimes.

Next, it will be very important to provide the public with accurate statistical information which shows that wrongful convictions are always possible, even in cases that first appear to be “slam dunks.”  Last year, Mr. Toshikazu Sugaya was exonerated after serving almost 19 years for allegedly killing a four year old girl. It is said that the police felt pressure to solve the case and indentified Sugaya to assuage the public’s fears. Later their sloppy investigation process was revealed.

Finally, the concept and definition of punishment should be reexamined – I believe that retaliation and revenge are not the same thing as punishment.  Yet it is often said that the death penalty is the most “reasonable” punishment for people who are responsible for atrocious crimes, especially when we consider the victims’ families’ feelings and their sorrow. The government should be more interested in justice than revenge. Punishment should rehabilitate and correct behavior deemed illegal and reintegrate individuals into mainstream society. This process may require some people to spend the rest of their lives in the justice system but people who committed crimes should be able to feel, think and reflect on their transgressions.

I hope that people in Japan will realize one day, as I did, that the taking of another human being’s life is murder whether it is committed by an individual or the government.

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Just a little more about Sodium Thiopental

Posted by Zac Stone on February 4th, 2011

You may recall the recent news about states importing sodium thiopental, the anesthetic used in lethal injections, from the U.K., and the FDA allowing the drug to enter the U.S. to be used in executions without reviewing the drug for safety or effectiveness or any other measure of its quality, despite the sodium thiopental being dated 2006 (it generally has a 1-year lifespan) and likely coming from an Austrian facility that no longer exists through two British pharmaceutical distributors, one of which is housed in a west London driving school.

Attorneys for six death row inmates have now filed a federal lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration for allowing states to import these unapproved supplies of sodium thiopental from the U.K. in violation of federal regulations. The law firm Sidley Austin and partner Bradford Berenson, a former associated counsel to President George W. Bush, on behalf of Arizona inmates Donald Beaty, Daniel Cook, and Eric King, California inmates Steve Livaditis and Brett Pensinger, and Tennessee inmate Stephen West, allege that the FDA shirked its responsibilities to screen all drugs coming into the United States from unregistered foreign drug suppliers and to refuse to admit drugs into the country that appear adulterated or misbranded.

This lapse by the FDA means, particularly in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Nebraska, and Tennessee, which have all received shipments of thiopental from the U.K., that prisoners being executed may undergo excruciating pain if ineffective thiopental is used before other drugs paralyze the inmate and induce cardiac arrest.

While the FDA has previously stated that reviewing drugs "used for the purpose of state-authorized lethal injection clearly falls outside of FDA's explicit public health role," this would not appear to be the case, at least according to the dozens of federal regulations cited by the plaintiffs.

"The FDA is improperly allowing drugs into the United States even though it won't stand behind their safety and efficacy," said attorney Berenson. "Using [unapproved thiopental] in executions creates unacceptable risks that prisoners will not be properly anesthetized before the other drugs used in lethal injection protocols stop the prisoners' breathing and induce cardiac arrest. Whatever one's views may be on the death penalty, no reasonable person is in favor of botched or inhumane executions."

As our prediction for lengthy legal battles surrounding thiopental use becomes reality even sooner than we expected, the risk of unintentionally torturing an inmate looms large. Following through with botched executions stands in opposition to years of human rights progress and puts corrections staff and medical personnel in a position no rational person would relish. The results of this lawsuit will have especially grave impacts in California, which is stocked with enough untested, foreign thiopental for more than a hundred executions after ongoing legal challenges to the system have been settled. Whether you believe a humane execution can exist, it is nearly impossible to defend a state in subjecting prisoners to insufferable pain, regardless of the crimes they have committed.

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Whittier Woman's Pain Prolonged by Death Penalty Process

Posted by Judy Kerr, California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on January 27th, 2011

Murder victim family members, like the 500+ supporters of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, have various compelling reasons for opposing the death penalty.  Perhaps none is more heart rending than the story of Jan Williams

In August of 2007, Jan Williams’ son, Neal, and two grandchildren, Devon and Ian, were murdered by her daughter-in-law.  The murder was vicious and horrifying and the killer, Manling Williams, was arrested and imprisoned immediately.  There has never been much question about her guilt, and perhaps even less question that she should be held accountable for her violent killing.

A jury found Manling guilty of murder, but deadlocked on whether or not she should receive the death penalty.  After enduring the pain and stress of the trial, Jan decided she did not want the death penalty for Manling and asked prosecutors to opt for life without parole instead.  She felt that a death sentence, with its years of appeals and repeated court dates, would only prolong the suffering of both families involved.  Knowing that her son and grandchildren’s killer was behind bars for life would provide enough relief.

Unfortunately, the prosecutors haven’t listened to Jan. Despite her many public statements decrying the process that will drag her through years of appeals and continually reopen wounds that might otherwise begin to heal, we learned earlier this month that the death penalty trial of Manling Williams is set to continue. 

Jan Williams is not alone.  The hundreds of murder victim family members who comprise California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty know that the death penalty does not serve victims’ needs.   Like Jan, many CCV supporters have had to endure to pain and suffering of the death penalty process only to learn that neither a death sentence nor an execution would bring them any closure.  After all, the death penalty cannot bring back their loved ones.

The story of Aba Gayle, whose beautiful daughter Catherine Blount was murdered in 1980, comes to mind.  Douglas Mickey, the man convicted of murdering Catherine, was sentenced to death.  The District Attorney assured Aba Gayle that Mickey’s execution would help her heal.  For several years following Catherine’s death, Aba Gayle believed this.  Eventually, however, she realized that her thirst for revenge was actually precluding her from beginning to heal. 

Rev. Cathy Harrington faced a similar situation.  After her beautiful daughter, Leslie, and her daughter’s roommate, Adrienne, were brutally murdered, Cathy faced the prospect of a death penalty trial for the man convicted of the murders.  As a parish minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, Cathy opposed the death penalty.  Her sons disagreed and told her not to protest the death penalty. 

However, after several trips from Michigan to California for pretrials and hearings, enduring unwanted media attention, and the threat of further exploitation, her sons began to question their position.  They agreed that having the freedom to grieve Leslie’s death and move toward healing was more important than the death penalty.  With the help of a victim outreach specialist, Cathy’s family was able to negotiate a sentence of life without parole.

As we celebrate success in Illinois and hope for Governor Quinn’s signature on repeal, let’s remember these stories and double our efforts to end California’s death penalty in honor of the victims and their survivors.  We know that the death penalty does not deter crime.  We know that in California we are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on a failed system.  We know that the possibility of executing an innocent person is all too real.

We also know, and will do well to keep close in our hearts and minds, the names of the victims of these horrible homicides.  Their families and survivors hope for justice and it is with that hope that we can move forward, building alliances that will allow us to finally end the death penalty, and replace it with an alternative that addresses the needs of victims and survivors of violence.

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Ohio Justice and Department of Corrections Head Publicly Oppose Death Penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on January 26th, 2011

Two prominent members of Ohio’s criminal justice system have recently come out in opposition to their state’s death penalty. The first, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, is the senior member of the Ohio Supreme Court, and, as a state senator, co-authored Ohio’s 1981 death penalty statute. Justice Pfeifer first voiced his opposition during last Tuesday’s swearing in of newly elected Governor John Kasich when he asked the Governor to commute the sentence of the 157 prisoners on death row to life without parole. Justice Pfeifer has expounded on his comments, writing an editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer where he argued that Ohio’s death penalty is applied far more frequently and with much less judicial oversight than its authors has intended. He goes on to point out that Ohio now has the ability to sentence prisoners to life without the possibility of parole, abrogating the need for the death penalty as means to ensure criminals receive adequately severe punishment. Because many of the individuals on death row received their sentences prior to the passage of the life without parole law, Ohio executes individuals according to what amounts to a “death lottery.”

Justice Pfeifer’s criticism has already mobilized others, as Terry Collins, the former director of Ohio’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, responded with an editorial of his own where he echoed the Justice’s concerns and added several more pointed criticisms of Ohio’s system of capital punishment. Mr. Collins emphasized the extreme cost of the death penalty, the inconsistencies in its application, as well as the often overlooked negative impact it can have on the families of murder victims who are forced to attend painful hearings for years and years after they have lost their loved ones. Mr. Collins concluded by urging Ohioans to seriously consider replacing the death penalty with life without parole, which he described as a “swift, certain, [and] effectively severe” alternative.

Justice Pfeifer and Mr. Collins are now two more members of the growing group of former death penalty supporters who have publically come to oppose capital punishment. We can only hope that more people will show similar courage and continue to speak out in favor of creating a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system, not just in Ohio, but throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

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Access to Sodium Thiopental Forces States to Change Death Penalty Laws

Posted by Zac Stone on January 25th, 2011

California and other death penalty states may have to change their death penalty laws in response to the announcement by the Illinois-based Hospira Inc., the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental, that it will stop producing the anesthetic included in the cocktail of drugs used in the nation's execution chambers.

Supply of the drug fell below demand after a raw materials shortage that began in 2009, and California corrections officials scrambled to get their hands on enough sodium thiopental to follow through with the September 30th, 2010-scheduled execution of Albert Greenwood Brown, a man convicted of raping and murdering a teenaged girl in Riverside. Fortunately for justice, a court stayed Brown's execution after they determined the expiration date of the state's remaining supply of thiopental - October 1st, 2010 - had influenced Brown's execution date.

Very few questions remain about the incident after the ACLU sued for the disclosure of information regarding California's search for thiopental, which included a drive to Arizona to pick up 12 grams of the drug, sold to Arizona corrections officials by Dream Pharma Ltd., an unassuming London pharmaceutical wholesaler, and manufactured by the British Archimedes Pharma. The British government, in response to the Arizona deal, outlawed the export of sodium thiopental for use in executions, but not before California was able to place a $36,415 order for 514.5 more grams of the anesthetic (three grams are necessary for an execution, with another three required on backup by the state's lethal injection protocol), ensuring that California will have the capacity to kill another hundred-odd prisoners should the occasion arise before the new 2014 expiration date. The legality of using the non-FDA-approved stash for executions will likely be decided in the courts.

Hospira, which was the only FDA-approved source of sodium thiopental, planned to move its production of the drug from North Carolina to a new plant in Italy, a non-death penalty country that demanded the company's assurances that its drugs would not be used to execute inmates. The EU and many European countries already have laws prohibiting the direct support of capital punishment and those that don't are beginning to, the sting of WWII and the Holocaust still exacting its psychological toll. The company decided to discontinue the drug rather than face sanctions by the Italian government for providing execution drugs to the United States.

The move will force many state governments to amend their death penalty laws, ensuring legislative battles and lengthy litigation in many cases. Of the 35 states that still practice lethal injection, 34 use thiopental. Oklahoma recently switched to the anesthetic pentobarbital, commonly used to euthanize animals; Ohio has said it will go this route and other states will no doubt follow suit, but for many states, as in California, the use of sodium thiopental is a requirement of the lethal injection protocol, any change to which will be hotly contested. After four years of legislative hearings and litigation, legal challenges to California's recently amended lethal injection protocol regulations are still ongoing - the reason the state hasn't executed anyone since January of 2006.

Officials in Texas, the nation's most active executioner, have already announced they are exploring the use of other sedatives. The state has only enough sodium thiopental for two of the four executions scheduled there through July. Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas, among others, have all faced a shortage of the drug in recent months. Dwindling thiopental stocks coupled with Europe's increased hostility to pro-death penalty interests will push California and other death penalty states to pursue other options. With work and luck, some of those states might consider the costs of maintaining the death penalty - both in financial terms and in human life - to be prohibitive. States with hundreds of inmates sitting on death row like California, Texas, and Florida, stand to lose billions of dollars over just the next few years prosecuting criminals who could much less expensively live out their lives in prison cells for the wrongs they've perpetrated, while running the risk of executing an innocent and continuing to prolong the suffering of victims' families, withholding the closure that comes with knowing an offender will be imprisoned forever. There remains one life-saving, economical alternative to using sodium thiopental - abolishing the death penalty. It is the only option that ensures states will save billions of dollars in the near term while protecting human life.

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New Voices Speak Out in Opposition to the Death Penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on January 20th, 2011

When recently retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens published an essay last December that voiced his new-found opposition to the death penalty, he joined a growing contingent of public figures who have changed their opinions on capital punishment and are using their positions of influence to persuade others.

2011 has seen several other prominent citizens join Justice Stevens in the fight against an unfair and unjust death penalty. The most recent of these converts is Illinois’ senior Senator, and the body’s second-highest ranking member, Richard Joseph “Dick” Durbin. Senator Durbin explicitly cited Stevens and former Justice Blackmun, saying that “[t]hey both at the end of their careers came to the same conclusion that after a lifetime of supporting the death penalty and trying to make it fair, that we had largely failed as a nation, and I cannot escape their wisdom on this issue. I really believe that on reflection, the burden is now on those supporting the death penalty to prove its fairness.” While Senator Durbin still believes in the morality of capital punishment for the most heinous crimes, he believes that the systemic failure of our institutions to target those who are actually guilty, instead of singling out racial minorities and the economically disenfranchised, must lead to the conclusion that “life imprisonment is penalty enough” since it still leaves open the possibility of correcting mistakes when they happen.

Senator Durbin is not the only government official to express severe doubts about the effectiveness of capital punishment. On January 14th, outgoing Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell issued a statement to the General Assembly which urged legislators to seriously look at replacing capital punishment with life without parole if the system cannot be made to operate more efficiently and effectively. Governor Rendell stressed that the enormous lag time between sentencing and execution eliminates whatever deterrent effect capital punishment might have so that for “criminals on the street, our death penalty is simply not a reality.” The Governor noted there was no easy solution to this problem as the delay is largely the result of an appeals process which is necessary to prevent the execution of innocents. The Governor concluded by suggesting that if adequate reforms could not be made to Pennsylvania’s statute, it might be better to abandon capital punishment altogether.

It is not just politicians who have turned critical of the death penalty, as several prominent law enforcement officials have recently spoken out. Police Chief Charles Gruber, a former president of both the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, has gone on the record in favor of the bill now awaiting Governor Quinn’s signature which would abolish Illinois' death penalty. After decades of working to find a fair and effective death penalty, Chief Gruber has come to the conclusion that "the death penalty does nothing to keep us safe” and that Illinois’ new legislation makes possible the transition away from a broken system while freeing up funds for law enforcement training that could provide a real deterrent for criminals. Chief Gruber’s conclusion was echoed by an international coalition of prosecutors and police officers who recently met in Washington, D.C. for a summit on the death penalty. In an editorial, the group stressed the grave trade-offs the death penalty forces, stating that “All of the money that states spend on the death penalty could be used to hire more police officers, train them better, solve cold cases, and prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. We should spend our limited resources on programs that work.” 

With these new voices entering the debate, and legislative victory pending in Illinois, now is an exciting time for death penalty opponents. We must work to capitalize on these recent gains and build the base of public support necessary to make moving past the death penalty a reality.

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Texas Appeals Court Stops Death Penalty Hearing

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on January 12th, 2011

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has decided to permanently stop the hearing in Texas v. Green, which examined the constitutionality of Texas's death penalty in light of the frequency of wrongful convictions.

The Court ruled that District Judge Kevin Fine did not have the jurisdiction to hear arguments on capital punishment's constitutionality, especially at the pre-trial stage of the process.  The Court did recognize the seriousness of Green's concerns and urged the legislature to look closely at the problem.

While it is good to hear the Court recognize the seriousness of the risk of wrongful conviction, it is unfortunate that they were unwilling to take their responsibility to ensure that Texas's judicial system does its part to prevent the execution of innocents.  The two days of testimony prior to the original stay represented an attempt to honestly and thoroughly investigate Texas's death penalty.  This is a conversation that must be continued both in the legal system and in the court of public opinion.




Death Penalty Repeal Passes Illinois State Senate

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on January 12th, 2011
supporters celebrate SB 3539's passage
Cathy Crino, Gail Rice, Sen. Kwame Raoul, Jeremy Schroeder celebrate SB 3539's passage

More than ten years after then-Governor George Ryan’s moratorium on executions went into effect, the Illinois State Senate voted 35-22 in favor of SB3539 which repeals the state’s death penalty. The Bill has now been sent to the desk of Governor Patrick J. Quinn, and if signed, Illinois will be the 16th state to abolish capital punishment.

The bill was sponsored by Senator Kwame Raoul and was the senate version of a house bill, sponsored by Rep. Karen Yarbrough, which passed last week with a vote of 60-54. The debate in the senate was characterized by impassioned debate from both sides. Many anti-death penalty advocates were present, including family members of murder victims who are against capital punishment, and exoneree Randy Steidl, who was released from death row in 2004. Abolition proponents stressed Illinois frightening track-record of sentencing innocents to death, and emphasized the enormous costs repairing this chronically broken system would entail.

Governor Quinn has not yet decided whether or not he will sign the bill. While he has previously expressed support for capital punishment for the most heinous crimes, he has also come out in favor of the moratorium and seems genuinely concerned with the flaws in Illinois’ system.

Activist support has been hugely important in every step of the campaign for SB3539, and we should be incredibly proud of our success. Now, however, is no time to rest on our laurels! Please contact Governor Quinn and tell him you support repeal! He can be reached at his Chicago office at (312)-814-2121, and at his Springfield Office at (217)-782-0244. We are one signature away from making history, let’s make it happen!

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Progress Being Made for West Memphis Three

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on January 12th, 2011

The new year has breathed fresh life into the cases of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., collectively known as the West Memphis Three. The three men were convicted in 1994 for the killing of three West Memphis children, though there has been persistent doubt about their guilt dating back to the original trial. The campaign to prove their innocence scored a serious victory last November when the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that a lower court must hold an evidentiary hearing to examine whether new DNA evidence which potentially exonerates the West Memphis Three, as well as accusations of jury misconduct in their original trials, sufficiently calls into question their sentences such that a new trial must be held.

January 4th marked the beginning of the preparation for the evidentiary hearing. Circuit Court Judge David Laser took meetings with attorneys for both sides, and set February 18th as a deadline for the submission of pre-hearing briefs. Judge Laser has replaced David Burnett as the appeals judge, which itself represents a positive development as Burnett had repeatedly upheld the original verdict. Judge Laser has made it clear that this case represents a top priority, and he stated plans to "get this done as soon as possible."

Among the issues discussed last week were concerns about scheduling the hearing in light of outstanding Rule 37 appeals for Mr. Misskelley and Mr. Baldwin which contest the adequacy of their representation at the original trial. Judge Laser agreed with arguments made by Mr. Echols attorney who said that while the Rule 37 appeals are certainly important, they cannot delay the evidentiary hearing for Echols as he is the only prisoner facing the death penalty. There was also discussion of new standards for DNA testing which included a commitment to greater transparency in the process. This point is of great significance in the case as the District Attorney's office had previously conducted secret tests when their original screenings of crime scene material appeared to clear Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley. Judge Laser has also issued a gag order surrounding the case, in part to help create a new jury pool in the case of a retrial.

These developments represent significant gains for the West Memphis Three, who have persistently professed their innocence. We should all be thankful that it finally seems as though the courts will give them a real chance to prove it.

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Book Review:
Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars

Posted by Cheryl Cotterill, Guest Blogger on December 14th, 2010

Author: Kenneth E. Hartman
Atlas & Co., $14.00


Review by Cheryl Cotterill

A child of "Mother California," author Kenneth E. Hartman grew up in the State's juvenile system where he became addicted to violence and the power he derived from instilling fear in others. By the age of 19, Hartman says he "had the dead eyes familiar to prison guards and combat veterans." But Hartman's violent rampage comes to an end in February 1980 when he beats a homeless man to death for no reason. Hartman is found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

At first I found this book difficult to read because of Hartman's arrogance, continued violence, and his seeming lack of ability to take responsibility for his actions. He also never really expresses any remorse for taking the life of a helpless person and instead boasts about how everyone seems to be both in awe and fear of him. But the book, like Hartman's life, is worth not giving up on.

Hartman has an "awakening as a human being" when he has a chance encounter with a woman on the phone while trying to leave a message for his friend's attorney. Hartman eventually falls in love, gets married, and in 1995, after fifteen years behind bars, has a baby girl. Transformed by the experience of fatherhood, Hartman writes, "As a younger man, I aspired to be one of the legends of the prison world. To be talked about in hushed tones, with fearful reverence, this was my goal . . . [n]ow, I have another foundation on which to build a worthwhile life: the role of reformer, of healer…"

But these revelations come too late in a system bent on punishment and vengeance instead of reform. During his thirty years in prison, Hartman observes what he refers to as the "undoing" of the prison system as the number of prisoners continues to grow exponentially and the guards resign themselves to "standing at the edges of the yard, watching the violent drama unfold." In reaction, Hartman dedicates himself to working towards prison reform and rehabilitation by instigating what would become known as the Honor Program. After watching race wars erupt and surviving a prison riot, Hartman gets the idea to start an Honor Yard Program for those who simply want to do their time away from the madness. His stubbornness pays off and in 2000 the Honor Yard Program is initiated and eventually becomes a successful program incentivizing positive behavior and prisoners' abstinence from drugs, gangs, and violence.

Hartman didn't receive the death penalty and although he considers life without parole to be the "other death penalty," his story makes clear that it is not. One of the most insightful but disturbing ordeals that Hartman writes about is his experience of being erroneously diagnosed with AIDS. In facing death, Hartman finds spirituality; liberated from his ego and fear for the first time in his life. Surrounded by AIDS patients, Hartman experiences empathy for the terrible disrespect that those around him have had to endure from people like him. Eventually Hartman learns that he doesn't have the disease, but the good news is tempered by the fact that he will have to return to solitary confinement. Nevertheless, Hartman's new lease on life allows him to experience love and the joys of fatherhood, as well as find meaning and purpose in his commitment to the Honor Program. Reasonable people may disagree about whether life without parole is appropriate for those who have transformed their lives in prison and no longer pose a danger to society, but unlike the death penalty, at least it allows for transformation and redemption.


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Stay in Texas case continues culture of silence around the death penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on December 8th, 2010

A hearing to determine the constitutionality of Texas' death penalty was stayed yesterday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The hearing, which began on Monday in Houston as a pre-trial proceeding in the case Texas v. Green, sought to determine whether or not a high probability of wrongful conviction meant that capital punishment violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The case concerns John Edward Green, a Houston man charged with fatally shooting a woman in a 2008 robbery. Because Texas is seeking the death penalty, Mr. Green's attorneys have challenged the constitutionality of the punishment, and Judge Fine has provided the hearing as an opportunity for both sides to plea their case.

Prosecutors have declined the invitation to defend capital punishment, deciding instead to "stand mute." The Harris County District Attorney's office has repeatedly objected to the hearing, arguing that it concerns law which is settled and thus irrelevant to the Green case. They have also challenged Judge Fine's impartiality, and have claimed that the hearing is premature, as the question of sentencing will be relevant only if Mr. Green is convicted. Mr. Green's attorneys have responded to these claims by arguing that the high likelihood of wrongful conviction, combined with the impact of Texas death penalty laws which set an unreasonably high barrier for appeals, make taking the death penalty off the table before trial begins an imperative. The Court of Appeal's stay is meant to provide each side with the opportunity to file briefs arguing whether or not the hearing should occur.

The hearing itself represents a new and important turn in the death penalty debate, as it is the first time a Texas district court judge has heard arguments regarding capital punishment's constitutionality. The defense called on several prominent legal experts who spoke about the risk factors that lead to wrongful conviction, including flawed science and unreliable testimony.

Before the stay was issued, the hearing was meant to feature testimony regarding the cases of Cameron Todd Willingham and Claude Jones, two prisoners who were executed on the basis of evidence which has been undermined. The prosecution's unwillingness to use this hearing to defend the death penalty speaks to their fear that it will not stand up to careful scrutiny. Even if their legal objections are correct, the hearing still represents an opportunity for a much-needed public debate about the problem of wrongful conviction and the legitimacy of capital punishment. If it is true that the death penalty system does not wrongfully convict people, then its proponents should be able to offer evidence to support that claim. If, on the other hand, innocent people are at risk of being executed, this is a fact that cannot be buried. Instead, this problem must be faced full on and should prompt a complete overhaul of the system to eliminate the risk of the wrongful convictions, or better yet, an agreement to move beyond the death penalty in search of more effective alternatives.

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Justice Stevens Speaks out Against Capital Punishment

Posted by James Brockway on December 2nd, 2010

Recently retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has used his departure from the Court to publicly voice opinions that his previous role had dictated best be kept private.  After speaking earlier this month about the Ground Zero mosque controversy, the Justice has turned his attention to the death penalty.  In an article for The New York Review of Books published online this Sunday, Justice Stevens lays out a trenchant critique of a form of punishment he had already described, in 2008, as “the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes.”

This new essay represents Justice Stevens’ first attempt to clarify and explicate that position as a private citizen.  The Justice was not always an opponent of capital punishment; in fact, he was a member of the majority in 1976’s Gregg v. Georgia (428 U.S. 153) which reinstated the death penalty in the United States after a four year de facto moratorium.

Justice Stevens’ change in opinion is a consequence of the failure of the system of capital punishment in place since 1976 to live up to Gregg’s promise of a justly conceived and fairly and rationally implemented death penalty.  Instead, we have been left with a slew of wrongful convictions and a schema of punishment which is applied along racial and class lines.  This bias manifests itself both in the frequency with which the dispossessed are convicted of capital crimes, and in the fact that the death penalty is much more likely to be sought when the victim is white.

Justice Stevens is also quick to point to the judicial branch as bearing its fair share of responsibility for the flaws in our system of capital punishment.  He blames “regrettable judicial activism” for the Court’s decision to quickly overrule decisions that strove to make the application of the death penalty more reasoned and deliberate.  For Justice Stevens, the Court’s composition in recent years has changed in such a way as to eliminate the dispassionate evaluation of the societal costs and benefits of executions which would be necessary if there were to be a constitutionally appropriate death penalty.

The substance of Justice Steven’s arguments are not new to any opponent of the death penalty, but what is impressive about the piece is both the clarity and force of his writing, as well as his willingness, atypical of retired Justices, to enter such a heated public debate and use his position towards furthering the interests of social justice.

While Justice Stevens’ efforts are certainly worthy of praise, it is important for anti-death penalty advocates to think critically about one of his suggestions, namely that a “narrower regime,” or limiting the death penalty’s application, would ameliorate its flaws.  While it is certainly true that it is better to execute fewer people, the idea that there might be some hypothetical “fair” death penalty obscures the fact that no such thing has existed any time in human history, and it was precisely this hope that lead to the re-imposition of capital punishment in the 1970s.

This being said, Justice Steven’s recent advocacy has represented an important moment in the galvanization of public opinion against capital punishment, and we are lucky to have an ally as influential and well-spoken as Justice Stevens who seems committed to using the resources at his disposal to move towards reasonable alternatives to capital punishment.




The United Nations Fails to Protect Members of the LGBT Community from Execution

Posted by Erica Sanders, Guest Blogger on December 1st, 2010

In the United States, proponents of the death penalty have the luxury of justifying executions on the basis that the death penalty is the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime: murder. A more global perspective reveals, however, that in some nations, the death penalty is being used not only against convicted murderers, but also against members of the LGBT community. According to the Lesbian and Gay Association, over half a dozen countries put individuals to death for engaging in same-sex actions.

Considering the global persecution of homosexuals, the United Nation's recent vote to remove sexual orientation from a resolution condemning unjustified executions against certain vulnerable groups, is shocking to say the least.

The resolution in question, asserts the responsibility of member nations to defend the right to life, with a particular focus on members of historically persecuted groups. The vulnerable groups mentioned in the resolution include ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, and for the past decade, the list has also included sexual orientation. This year however, Morocco and Mali introduced an amendment to delete sexual orientation from the list, claiming the deletion would more accurately reflect the values of African and Islamic nations. The amendment passed by a narrow vote of 79-70, quickly sparking concerns and vocal opposition from humanitarian groups such as Human Rights Watch. The subsequent fallout from the amendment brought the use of harsh punishments and the death penalty against sexual minorities to the world's attention.

In October of 2009, Ugandan Member of Parliament, David Bahati introduced the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which in some cases, broadens legal punishment for homosexual activity to include the death penalty. Under this bill, people or organizations that promote LGBT rights are subject to criminal prosecution and  punishment. In addition, the bill proposes that all citizens who witness homosexual activity be required to report it within 24 hours, or they could be subject to years of imprisonment. Prior to the passing of the bill, homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, however government leaders expressed that the measures were necessary to ensure the "strengthening the nation's capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family".

Since the proposition of the bill in 2009, the anti-gay sentiment within the country has grown substantially. In October of 2010, a newspaper entitled, The Rolling Stone, published what it called their "top 100 gays and lesbians". The article featured the names, pictures, and home address of 100 suspected homosexuals. Since this time, many Ugandan gays and lesbians have reported a sharp increase in violence towards them by fellow citizens.

Not surprisingly, Uganda's proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill has raised a great amount of opposition. Many Western nations have threatened to stop monetary and physical aid to Uganda. Similarly, numerous human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have expressed their concerns about violence and threats to freedom of expression. In addition, Elizabeth Matanka, the U.N. special envoy on AIDS, asserts that the legislation will make citizens fearful of being tested for HIV, if doing so could make them suspected of being homosexual.

The backlash discussed above is likely what caused Ugandan official James Nsaba, to say that the bill would be revised to replace use of the death penalty with life imprisonment. However, the original sponsor of the bill, David Bahati, has asserted that he intends to fight for the inclusion of the death penalty in the bill.

While many of us in Western nations would like to believe that the world is moving forward with respect to human rights, the U.N.'s failure to protect the life of all members of vulnerable groups is a sobering reminder of our shortcomings.

While many people believe that executing persons based solely on their sexual orientation is both cruel and barbaric, we must remember that the leaders and citizens of many countries, including Uganda, believe the execution of homosexuals is necessary to protect the integrity and safety of their society.

And is this not, in part, the same argument used by many Western proponents of the death penalty? In this sense, the execution of convicted criminals who are often poor, usually minorities, frequently suffer from mental illness, and are sometimes innocent, may not be as different as it appears at first glance.

Posted in Blog, International | 2 comments



No more sodium thiopental from the United Kingdom

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on December 1st, 2010

As a British citizen I was relieved to read that our government plans to restrict the export of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic drug used in the three-drug lethal injection procedure commonly adopted in the US. Of course, I would have thought this action was a foregone conclusion, taking into account the EU guidelines and our own government's Death Penalty Strategy published in October 2010, which clearly states:

The United Kingdom opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle because we believe it undermines human dignity; there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value; and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.

It was also heartening to read that Archimedes Pharma, the only company manufacturing the drug in this country, welcomed the ruling that a license must be attained by any person or company attempting to export sodium thiopental.

Since the whole of Europe condemns the death penalty in principal, as laid out in EU Regulation 1236/2005, none of the European countries are in a position to ethically allow the exportation of sodium thiopental.

Unfortunately the drug had already been exported from the UK to Arizona, where it was used in the execution of Jeffrey Landrigan. Tennessee has also obtained supplies and apparently California is set to receive a consignment this week, enough to kill 86 inmates which is a horrendous thought. It is not known whether the newly adopted export ban will prevent this delivery.

This story has raised awareness over the issue of the death penalty, and may help the United States to realize that the world "out there" does care, and is prepared to take a stand.

The death penalty is outdated and I believe that individuals are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, not only through the execution process itself, but also as a result of the endless prevarication by the courts. Death row prisoners are given execution dates, taken through the preparatory procedures, only to have the execution delayed and rescheduled over and over again. The wait for death is agonizing.

Surely it is time for each state to consider abolishing the death penalty in favor of life without parole.




2010 Election Results Have Large Implications for California's Executions

Posted by Erica Sanders, Guest Blogger on November 17th, 2010

The recent elections brought an array of important issues into the minds of the public. The death penalty however, remained somewhat of a background issue as candidates focused their efforts on addressing voters concerns about fiscal issues, such as the deficit and unemployment. This makes it easy to forget that this election brings with it great ramifications for the future of the death penalty on both the national and state level.

Perhaps most pertinent to the state of California, is the election of a new governor. Governor elect, Jerry Brown, is no stranger to the controversy surrounding the death penalty. During his first stint as governor in the 1970's, Brown was adamant about his opposition to the death penalty and even campaigned against its use in California. More recently however, Brown's opinions on the issue have become somewhat less principled. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, Brown stated that he would "prefer a society that didn't have to use the death penalty," yet affirmed his dedication to upholding the law. These statements brought waves of criticism, most notably from pro-death penalty opponent Meg Whitman, who expressed concerns about his apparent lack of ability to firmly choose a side on the issue.

Unlike the race for governor, San Francisco Attorney General candidates Kamala Harris and Steve Cooley have vehemently expressed polar opposite opinions on capital punishment. Cooley is a long time supporter of capital punishment, while Harris has stressed the importance of violence prevention and alternatives, such as life without parole. While the race is still too close to call, Cooley's tough-on-crime persona doesn't seem to have worked in his favor, as he currently trails Harris.

Salient on the national level is the reelection of Barbara Boxer. The long-time California favorite beat out tea-party-endorsed Carly Fiorina in the bid for Senator. Senator Boxer, who expresses concerns about the death penalty system, has openly called for a moratorium on executions within the state.

Overall, the citizens of California seem to have elected candidates who, for the most part, express varying degree of opposition to the death penalty. Perhaps this is indicative of a growing public sentiment against capital punishment, or perhaps voters elected these candidates for other reasons. Whatever the cause, with a death row population of more than 700 inmates, California's election of the above mentioned candidates will undoubtedly have a profound impact on us all.

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Results of DNA Testing Come Too Late for Claude Jones

Posted by on November 16th, 2010

Posted by Cheryl Cotterill, Guest Blogger

When Claude Jones was convicted of capital murder in 1990, the technology did not exist to test the only physical evidence provided by the prosecution as proof of his guilt--a single strand of hair.  According to the prosecution, in 1989 Jones robbed a liquor store and shot Allen Hilzendager with a gun belonging to Timothy Jordan while Jones' other accomplice, Kerry Dixon, waited in the car.  At trial, Jordan testified against Jones but in 2004 recanted his testimony stating that everything he had reported at trial actually came from Dixon and not Jones.  Jordan also stated that the police had told him what to say in exchange for a reduced sentence in the case.  Because accomplice testimony alone cannot be the sole basis for a conviction in Texas, the hair evidence was crucial to the prosecution's case.  As a result of the hair evidence Jones was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.  Jordan plea bargained and received a 10-year sentence for a lesser offense.  Jones always maintained his innocence.

Ten years later and while Jones was still alive, technology had been developed to determine whether or not the hair used to convict Jones actually belonged to him.  But rather than find out the truth and possibly save an innocent man's life, Texas instead opted to go ahead with the execution.  Jones had requested a stay of execution so that the hair evidence could be submitted for DNA testing but then Governor George W. Bush denied his request as did two Texas courts.  On December 7, 2000, Jones was strapped to a gurney and administered a lethal injection of drugs.

Now after three years of battling the courts, the Observer and three innocence groups were finally able to obtain the hair evidence and submit it for mitochondrial DNA testing.  On November 11, 2010, the results came back showing that the hair did not belong to Jones after all. The hair, it turns out, belonged to the murder victim, Allen Hilzendager. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said in a statement: "Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life."

Posted in Blog, Sentencing | 2 comments



Dr. Mario Obledo: A Leader in Death Penalty Abolition

Posted by Margaret Summers, Guest Blogger from NCADP on November 11th, 2010

This Veterans Day week, I've been remembering my first impressions of civil rights leader, death penalty abolitionist, and Korean War veteran, Dr. Mario Guerra Obledo. He was courtly. Reserved. Quiet. Polite. Respectful. I don't remember his exact height, but to me he stood far above everyone around him.

One of 12 children born to Mexican immigrants in San Antonio, Texas, Dr. Obledo enlisted in the Navy in 1951, serving on a ship in radar technology. After the war, Dr. Obledo went back to his home state. He earned his undergraduate degree in pharmacy from the University of Texas in Austin, and later, his law degree from St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

Like many veterans of color, Dr. Obledo returned from fighting a war for democracy and freedom in another country to find that such rights and freedoms were not always upheld for people of color in the United States. Pete Tijerina, another Latino war veteran, returned from combat with an idea to start a civil rights organization in support of Latinos. He met Dr. Obledo at a social function. With help from a $2.2 million dollar Ford Foundation grant and assistance from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the two veterans founded MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. MALDEF launched Dr. Obledo's civil rights activism.

Years later, when I met Dr. Obledo in the mid-1980s, he was the President of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation's oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization. I was a reporter, covering Congress for a local Washington, D.C. radio station. I interviewed him during that period after his news conferences or his testimony before Congressional hearings concerning racism against Latinos or U.S. immigration policy reform.

I wasn't involved in the death penalty abolition movement yet, so I had no idea that Dr. Obledo was an abolitionist. He worked diligently to end the death penalty in California, where the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, which he headed and co-founded, is based, and in other states where it is still practiced.

Ten years ago, in his capacity as the President of the Coalition, Dr. Obledo signed an open letter to President Clinton, calling for a moratorium on federal executions. Other signers included leaders of the ACLU, NAACP, the National Organization for Women, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The December 4, 2000 letter was a response to a Department of Justice survey of the federal death penalty authorization process. The survey revealed that, of the federal capital defendants against whom the Attorney General authorized seeking the death penalty, 69% were Hispanic and African American (18% and 51% respectively), while only 25% were white.

"We are aware of your support for the death penalty under some circumstances and we are not asking that you change your long-held position," the letter read in part. "We are asking only that you prevent an unconscionable event in American history - executing individuals while the government is still determining whether gross unfairness has led to their death sentences.

In 2006, Dr. Obledo served on the advisory board of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, which examined whether the death penalty was administered fairly and with due process. To the extent flaws were identified in states' death penalty systems, states could use the Project's findings in reforming their systems, impose moratoriums, and/or launch more comprehensive self-examinations of death penalty-related laws and processes. The Project examined death penalty systems in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

While on the advisory board, Dr. Obledo illustrated how racial and economic disparities in the application of death sentences stem from years of racial and economic discrimination. "I think they should do away with the death penalty," he said. "Most people convicted are minorities. People of color, or minorities. Only the poor people get executed. The people with money never get executed. That's why the system should be changed. You would make sure no injustice would occur."

As is the case with African Americans, Latinos are often disproportionately represented on death row. Approximately 11% of death row prisoners nationally are Latino, while Latinos comprise 15% of the U.S. population. In California, the percentage of Latinos sentenced to death and incarcerated on death row is increasing. According to a report by ACLU of Northern California, "Death in Decline 2009" Latinos comprised 50% of new death sentences in 2007, 38% of death sentences in 2008, and 31% of death sentences in 2009. There is no documented information regarding what is behind these troubling statistics. However, the report notes that the lack of Latinos on California's juries and the sentencing decisions made by California's District Attorneys might be among the driving factors.

Dr. Obledo's contributions to death penalty abolition and civil rights were many. Dr. Obledo died suddenly this August after a heart attack at age 78. While others undoubtedly remember and laud Dr. Obledo for his civil rights activism in LULAC, MALDEF and the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, I will always remember, and appreciate, his having devoted a portion of his busy life trying to end the barbaric, racially and economically biased and ineffective crime-fighting tool that is capital punishment.

This article has been cross-posted at Salon.com.

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Breaking News on Damion Echols and West Memphis Three

Posted by Stefanie on November 4th, 2010
Damien Echols
Damien Echols

I was thrilled to learn this morning that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who were convicted in the 1993 deaths of 8-year-olds Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Steven Branch, may have a chance to finally prove their innocence.

A few months ago, we launched a postcard campaign calling for a new trial for Damien Echols, who is on death row.

This statement was released by Damien Echols' spokesperson Lonnie Soury:

"We are very pleased that the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing to review the convincing evidence of the innocence of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley...These young men were convicted of a brutal crime someone else committed, and we hope the state moves quickly to overturn their convictions and seek to prosecute those responsible."

Let's hope this hearing is the first step in correcting what we believe is tragic miscarriage of justice.   


Posted in Blog, Innocence | 2 comments



Review of Death by Fire

Posted by Stefanie on November 3rd, 2010

Check out this review of FRONTLINE's special Death by Fire by Ken Chan on the Justia.com: Law, Technology & Legal Marketing Blog.

Chan writes:

FRONTLINE recently examined the controversial execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. The State of Texas had executed Mr. Willingham in 2004 for the death of his children in a fire, which the State Fire Marshal had concluded was intentionally set by the defendant.

**** 

Regardless of where you stand on the death penalty, this provocative documentary raises many concerns. The issue is not whether an innocent person can be wrongfully convicted. That question has been answered long ago by successive exonerations of persons formerly condemned to death row. The truth is, despite all the constitutional protections afforded to defendants in our system of justice, mistakes will occur. So, knowing that our current system has flaws, do we accept the possibility that an innocent person may be executed as a permissible trade-off or do we take the only punishment that is irreversible off the table?

 It is an interesting read. 

 




Have You Read Wilbert Rideau’s Book In The Place of Justice?

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on November 3rd, 2010

I read Rideau's book because it was recommended in the June edition of DPF's newsletter The Sentry! I am very glad I did. In The Place of Justice is a revealing account of prison life at Angola State Penitentiary and the jail at Calcasieu over the last four decades. Wilbert Rideau spent forty four years as an inmate in Louisiana and he describes in vivid detail how life in prison changed over those years. In the sixties, Angola State Prison was considered one of the most dangerous prisons in the country, but over time it has become one of the safest.

Interwoven between descriptions of prison life is the personal story of Mr. Rideau. In 1961, the year To Kill a Mocking Bird was published, Rideau killed a white bank employee during the course of a botched robbery. Initially, Rideau was condemned to death by an all white jury. We learn how a black man charged with killing a white woman in the early 1960's had all the cards stacked against him.

He spent twelve years on death row before his sentence was automatically commuted to a life sentence when the death penalty was suspended nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He went on to spend another thirty-two years in Angola prison educating himself and, in the seventies, becoming the editor of The Angolite, the award-winning prison newspaper. With Rideau as editor, the paper covered the return of the death penalty in 1976, without sparing us details of the gas chamber and the man who pulled the switch.

But this book is not just about the imperfections of prisons, the justice system and humans: it is also a personal story about courage and hope. Rideau learns how to cope with despair and move on. As his efforts to win his freedom are ruthlessly and vindictively rejected, he learns how to make the very best of a bad situation. The book reads very well and this is not surprising because Rideau is a prize winning journalist - and was a prize-winning journalist, even as an inmate. And finally this book is about love, determination and devotion. Rideau is supported in his quest for justice by his lady knight and a loyal defense team and the end is in the best happy-ever-after tradition!

Wilbert Rideau now works as a consultant for capital defense teams in federal and state cases, and speaks at state legal conferences and educational seminars, as well as universities and for private groups. More information can be found on his website: http://www.wilbertrideau.com.

You can purchase the book here: https://death.rdsecure.org/article.php?id=148

Posted in Blog, Sentencing | no comments



Human Error and the Death Penalty

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on October 29th, 2010

Human beings are fallible, right? We're not perfect. Therefore we might deduce that human institutions are equally fallible and imperfect. This is the nature of the human condition. AND YET some people believe that the death penalty - a final and irreversible condemnation of one human being by others, can be immune from human error. An exemplar case of human imperfection and the dangers of the death penalty is that of Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Mr. Graves was falsely accused at his trial in 1994 of assisting in the murder of a mother, daughter and four children. He was incriminated by the actual murderer, Robert Earl Carter, who afterwards confessed that he had lied. Nevertheless, the prosecutor, in an extremely flawed and imperfect case, manipulated the jury into finding Graves guilty, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Graves, an innocent man, was condemned to death.

Carter once again confirmed Graves' innocence while on his death bed in 2000, but the prosecution refused to concede that they could possibly have gotten anything wrong.

Graves spent 12 years on death row in Texas until his sentence was reversed in 2006 because of "prosecutorial misconduct." Since then, Graves and his attorney, with the assistance of the Texas Innocence Project and students of St. Thomas University, had been collecting evidence to support his claim of innocence. Meanwhile, a new district attorney was also re-examining the case and finally on Wednesday, October 27th, dropped all charges against Graves, claiming that his office could find no evidence against him and conceded that Graves "is an innocent man …. There is nothing that connects Anthony Graves to this crime."

Unfortunately, it was relatively easy to get Graves convicted and much more difficult to establish his innocence. This is quite alarming, and one has to wonder how many more innocent people are losing their lives, waiting behind bars--hoping to prove their innocence.

And how many innocent people have been and may be killed for crimes they did not commit? Nationally, including Graves, 139 men and women have been released from death rows across the country.  Allowing the agents of the state to kill a man or woman in the name of justice ignores human fallibility.

It is dangerous to allow human beings to act like God. Better to act like mere mortals and avoid using the ultimate penalty altogether, leaving room to correct human error.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | no comments



A New Study About Prosecutorial Misconduct in California is an Eye-Opener

Posted by Cheryl Cotterill, Guest Blogger on October 26th, 2010

A New Study About Prosecutorial Misconduct in California is an Eye-Opener

"Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," is a well known principle coined by William Blackstone but that is so fundamental to our humanity you can find its origins in the Genesis story. (See Genesis 18:23-32). The idea being that the risk of wrongfully convicting an innocent person is far worse than letting a guilty person go free.

A recent and telling report by the Northern California Innocence Project, titled "Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct in California 1997-2009", provides an alarming look at prosecutorial misconduct in California and the failure to hold some prosecutors accountable despite their sometimes repeated use of unfair and deceptive tactics for the sake of securing convictions. The financial cost of misconduct is extremely high, but as the report shows: "There is no more harmful consequence of prosecutorial misconduct than the conviction of the innocent. Yet it occurs repeatedly, causing devastating damage to the lives of the innocent, as well as those victimized by true perpetrators who remain free."

In their study, Professor Kathleen Ridolf and Pulitzer Prize-winner Maurice Possley engage in a comprehensive analysis of publicly available cases of prosecutorial misconduct in California, reviewing more than 4,000 state and federal appellate rulings, as well as media reports and trial court decisions, from 1997 through 2009. It is the most in-depth statewide review of prosecutorial misconduct in the United States. The examination revealed 707 cases in which courts explicitly found that prosecutors had committed misconduct; however, in the vast majority of cases the convictions were upheld because the misconduct was found to be harmless,

Most problematic and worrisome are the study's finding that those empowered to address the problem repeatedly fail to take meaningful action. In fact of the 4,741 public disciplinary actions reported in the California State Bar Journal from January 1997 to September 2009, only ten involved prosecutors and only six were for misconduct in the handling of a criminal case. Such inaction leads to repeated misconduct by some prosecutors who are willing to win a conviction at all costs even if it means resorting to unfair and deceptive practices. The study concludes: "Because the Bar has not fulfilled its responsibility to educate and deter misconduct through discipline, prosecutors know they can continue to commit misconduct to obtain convictions with almost no risk of reversal."

In the handful of cases where there are repercussions, it is usually the taxpayer who ends up bearing the cost for the prosecutor's misconduct. The taxpayer usually pays for the cost of litigation and the multi-million dollar settlements that counties end up having to pay out when an innocent person has been wrongfully imprisoned for years as a result of the misconduct. For example, in August 2010, the city of Long Beach paid out an $8 million settlement in a case alleging prosecutorial misconduct brought by Thomas Goldstein who was wrongfully convicted of a 1979 murder in Long Beach. Goldstein spent 24 years in prison until a federal judge ruled that Los Angeles County prosecutors improperly withheld evidence of deals with a jailhouse informant and failed to correct perjured testimony and ordered him to be released.

But sometimes the costs to society are far greater than just financial. For example, in 1980, Kevin Green of Orange County was wrongfully convicted for assaulting his pregnant wife and murdering her unborn fetus. By the time he was exonerated in 1996, police had discovered that the real assailant was Gerald Parker, who committed other crimes, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl, while law enforcement and prosecutors were busy focusing on Kevin Green.

Lack of Accountability for Prosecutorial Misconduct

According to the study, the "failure of judges, prosecutors and the California State Bar to live up to their responsibilities to report, monitor and discipline prosecutorial misconduct fosters misconduct, undercuts public trust and casts a cloud over those prosecutors who do their jobs properly."

A stark example is the death penalty prosecution of Mark Sodersten. In 2007, a California Court of Appeal vacated Sodersten's conviction after finding that the prosecutor, Philip Cline, had improperly withheld audiotapes from the defense. The audiotapes contained Cline's interviews with key witnesses. After reviewing the tapes, the justices found that they contained dramatic evidence pointing to Sodersten's innocence. Unfortunately for Sodersten, the court's ruling came too late. Mr. Sodersten died in prison after spending 22 years behind bars for a murder that the appellate court said he most likely did not commit. Sodersten's attorney filed a formal complaint with the California State Bar against Philip Cline, arguing that the prosecutor "asked a jury to kill a man based on a conviction he perverted." Philip Cline, however, was never disciplined. In April 2010, the State bar closed the investigation claiming that it could not prove Cline's culpability by clear and convincing evidence. Philip Cline was elected District Attorney for Tulare County in 1992 and remains in that position today.

The study concludes that "prosecutors continue to engage in misconduct, sometimes multiple times, almost always without consequence. And the courts' reluctance to report prosecutorial misconduct and the State Bar's failure to discipline it empowers prosecutors to continue to commit misconduct."

Disciplining Prosecutorial Misconduct

Failure by the State Bar to publicly discipline prosecutors sends a message to prosecutors that they can commit misconduct to obtain convictions with impunity. Nevertheless, the study does cite some progress made by the State Bar in its approach to prosecutorial discipline. Responding to the report and recommendations by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ), the Bar unanimously agreed to reaffirm "its commitment to establishing and monitoring disciplinary policies that support the primary purposes of the disciplinary proceedings . . . specifically, the protection of the public, the courts and the legal profession; the maintenance of high professional standards by attorneys and the preservation of public confidence in the legal profession." The State Bar's Office of the Chief Trial Counsel installed new reportable action screens into its computer system to track reports against attorneys in a manner consistent with the CCFAJ Report. Though the study applauds the Bar's efforts to adopt the CCFAJ recommendations, it nevertheless calls for more accountability and transparency. The authors also recommended that in conjunction with the California courts, records of compliance with the reporting statute should be made public.

In conclusion, this report should be a wake-up call. If the current system is left as-is, there could be dire consequences. Its findings reveal that some prosecutors repeatedly commit misconduct, courts fail to report the misconduct, and the State Bar almost never holds the prosecutors accountable. The authors charge the courts, prosecutors, and the State Bar with failing to fulfill their obligations in reporting and disciplining such misconduct. Though the authors list specific recommendations, including attorney, court, and state bar related reforms, it ultimately calls on the public to keep pressure on those responsible for making the critical reforms.

Posted in Blog | 1 comments



Death Penalty Usage Maps Show Infrequent Use of the Sentence

Posted by Stefanie on October 22nd, 2010

This remarkable sideshow of maps (below), created by Robert Smith (Staff Attorney at Capital Appeals Project / Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice) for a recent blog post he wrote for Second Class Justice, reveals that the death penalty is slowly fading away in the United States.  




"Conviction" hits local theaters today

Posted by Stefanie on October 22nd, 2010

"Conviction", a film starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, about a real-life wrongful conviction case hits local theaters today! There is a good review in the San Francisco Chronicle. Let's hope this film stirs people and opens their eyes to the serious problems in our criminal justice system.  




PBS's Frontline features the case of Cameron Willingham

Posted by Stefanie on October 20th, 2010

Last night PBS debuted it's new season of "Frontline" with an episode about the case of Texas death row prisoner Cameron Willingham. The show titled "Death by Fire" has generated a tremendous amount of buzz.  It is widely believed that Willingham was executed for a crime he did not commit.  I encourage you to watch and decide for yourselves.  




Albert Greenwood Brown and Dorothea Puente

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on September 30th, 2010

While Californians can breath a sigh of relief at the failure, at
least until the end of this year, of the homicidal quest endorsed by
both major candidates for Governor, Meg Whitman and Attorney General
Jerry Brown, to execute Albert Greenwood Brown in a rush of legal
chaos before the expiration date of the State's cache of sodium
thiopental, another murderer faces death without the extravagance of
such a Roman holiday: Dorothea Puente.

Puente was convicted of murdering three residents at her Sacramento
boarding house by administering an overdose of prescription drugs, then
burying their bodies in the yard. These victims were Dorothy Miller, Benjamin Fink, and Leona Carpenter.

In all, the bodies of nine victims were found. Puente's motive
was pecuniary gain: to continue collecting the victims' Social
Security checks after their deaths. Duly found guilty, she was sentenced
to life without possibility of parole, or permanent imprisonment. Now dying of some
unspecified terminal disease
which the authorities did not disclose
because of medical confidentiality requirements, she has been moved
from the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla to
an undisclosed hospital.

Puente's crimes were evidently targeted against seniors and people
with mental disabilities who may not have been the highest-profile
victims, however, this does not mean that the people she killed had no
families or friends to care or feel the loss. Yet, no one has called out for
her death or purported that a gratuitously expensive execution would bring
"closure" or "healing" to the families and friends of her victims, or to
society as a whole.

Instead, her sentence of permanent imprisonment (which for her, just like the
nearly 4000 other California murderers who have received this sentence since 1977, means exactly what it says) is seen as bringing about what might be termed "legal closure." Neither her sentencing, nor her death can bring true closure in terms of undoing the loss and grief suffered by those who love the nine people she killed; but justice has been done, and the case closed. She will never murder again and she will die in prison.

In contrast, Albert Greenwood Brown, who was previously convicted of rape,
abducted, raped, and strangled 15-year-old student Susan Jordan, and
then repeatedly telephoned Jordan's family to remark on her
disappearance and tell them where they could find her body.

How does one compare the cruelty of quietly killing nine especially vulnerable
people entrusted to one's care, with the kidnapping and sexual
assault of a young victim, followed by the tormenting of her mother? Both crimes are particularly heinous, yet the killers received very different sentences.

And where on this appalling scale of moral derangement do we put a
"progressive" state with ample means for imposing permanent
imprisonment on offenders such as Dororthea Puente and Albert
Greenwood Brown, which nevertheless arbitrarily seeks to kill some of
them as a kind of human sacrifice to create the appearance of "law and
order"? And where should we place candidates for high public office
who either should know better but don't, or who do know better but
put political popularity above the paramount imperative to protect
human rights?

In the aftermath of the failed attempt to kill Albert Greenwood Brown,
we should remember both Dorothea Puente and her victims, and that in this case, life without parole meant justice for both. 

Posted in Blog | 1 comments



Inadequate Legal Counsel a Key Concern in Death Penalty Cases

Posted by Erica Sanders, Guest Blogger on September 30th, 2010

As the multitude of problems with our capital punishment system become increasingly apparent, one stands out to be particularly troubling. Inmates without the financial means to hire a private attorney are statistically much more likely to be sentenced to death than their wealthier counterparts. Those who cannot afford a private attorney are constitutionally entitled to a court-appointed public defender. Unfortunately, such attorneys are often overworked and lack the time, skills and experience necessary to properly defend their clients. As a result, research indicates that a gross socio-economic disparity in death penalty sentencing has arisen.

The statistical evidence is overwhelming. An examination of 461 capital cases by The Dallas Morning News found that nearly one in four condemned inmates has been represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who have been disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. Similarly, in Washington State, one-fifth of the 84 people who have faced execution in the past 20 years were represented by lawyers who had been, or were later, disbarred, suspended or arrested. In some cases, court appointed defense attorneys have slept through trials and even appeared to court under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Highlighting concerns about inadequate legal representation is the case of Kentucky inmate Gregory Wilson, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of the murder of Kentucky woman Deborah Pooley. Wilson was only grated $2,500 for legal defense. Two lawyers volunteered to defend him; one had no experience with felony cases and the other gave the number to a local bar as his office phone. Wilson’s lawyers were often not present for trials, during which time he was forced to represent himself.

Yet another case demonstrating the damage done by poor counsel is the case of 50 year old British born citizen Linda Carty, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of ordering her neighbor's murder. As a British citizen, Carty was entitled to request legal representation from the British government. However, Carty was never informed by her lawyer of her right to do so. It was only after her sentencing that the British government became aware of her case and has since filed an amicus brief stating that if they had been notified, all efforts would have been made to provide Carty with effective legal counsel. Also troubling is that throughout the duration of the trial, Carty’s lawyer only met with her once, for 15 minutes, to discuss the case.

The relationship between inadequate counsel and death penalty sentencing underscores the systemic nature of injustice. In the United States, poverty disproportionately affects people of color. Therefore minorities who face trial for murder are disproportionately sentenced to death in part due to their inability to hire a private attorney. African Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 53% of the death row population although they constitute less than 30% of the general populous.
Ultimately, the measures in place to defend those facing capital punishment are flawed to say the least.

We are in desperate need of a system in which punishment is determined by severity of crime, not social privilege.

Posted in Blog, Race, Sentencing | 1 comments



Execution will not go forward! Was the state's rush worth it?

Posted by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on September 29th, 2010

Following developments in federal and state court, the Attorney General conceded today that the execution scheduled to occur at 9:00 pm on September 30 will not go forward. The concession came just 30 hours before the scheduled execution. Yet legal experts had predicted for weeks that the execution would not occur due to the many remaining legal challenges and uncertainties regarding the state’s method of execution, lethal injection.

Unfortunately, in their rush to schedule an execution that was unlikely to take place, the state completely disregarded the harm to the victims.  Our sympathies go out to the family of Susan Jordan who was killed by Albert Brown nearly 30 years ago. They have been on a cruel legal rollercoaster for decades. We cannot imagine what the events of the last few weeks have been like for them.

For more on how the death penalty affects victims' families, read this brand new op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.




CA Execution Postponed!

Posted by Stefanie on September 28th, 2010

As you may have heard, Governor Schwarzenegger has delayed the scheduled execution of California death row prisoner Albert Brown by 45 hours until Thursday, September 30th at 9pm. Read the New York Times story on this new development.  In addition, the 9th Circuit has sent the federal lethal injection case back to Judge Fogel for reconsideration: read more.

Events scheduled for San Quentin and Sacramento have been postponed until Thursday, while events scheduled for Los Angeles and San Diego will proceed as originally scheduled on Tuesday, September 28th.  Please see our updated schedule of events here.  The situation is changing rapidly, so please check this page regularly for schedule changes.

If you have not already contacted Attorney General Jerry Brown to ask him to stop seeking executions, please click here to act now

We will continue to update you as the situation changes.

Posted in Blog | no comments



Rush to resume executions while a ban is in place hurts victims

Posted by Jessica Lewis, Guest Blogger on September 10th, 2010

Despite the fact that executions have been on hold in California for almost five years, it seems as though some government officials are still in denial or just a little too eager for the ban to be lifted and are prematurely trying to schedule execution dates.

On Tuesday, August 31, one day after death row prisoner Albert Greenwood Brown was given an execution date of September 29th, Marin County Superior Court Judge Verna Adams clarified that she had not lifted the current stay on executions, and that it would remain in effect "unless and until" she says otherwise.

Although new lethal injection procedures were created by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and submitted for public comment, the Judge has yet to determine if CDCR appropriately complied with the Administrative Procedures Act, meaning the ban on executions is still in full force. This hasn't stopped the Governor or the Attorney General from pushing to set more execution dates.

Although prison officials are preparing for Brown's execution at the end of the month as if it were to happen, they have states that if the judge's order is still in effect on the execution date, they will cancel the execution. Considering the long-standing stay on executions and the number of lawsuits that are still pending, it is unlikely that all legal issues will be resolved and the ban will be lifted in time for the execution - so why  rush to set execution dates before determining whether executions can legally be carried out?

Planning and then canceling an execution puts the victim's family on an emotional roller-coaster that makes the whole process significantly more difficult. It reopens the wounds and causes even more pain. The Governor and the Attorney General know that they can't legally carry out executions, so why are they making promises that they can't keep? By ignoring the negative impact of setting an unrealistic execution date, the needs of the victim's families are also ignored. Whether a date is set or not, the prisoners will remain on death row, so rushing to set a date that will probably not be carried out is not only pointless, but irresponsible and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Take action now: sign the petition.


Larry King discusses the wrongful convictions of the West Memphis Three

Posted by Stefanie on September 8th, 2010
Damien Echols
Damien Echols

 

Last night Larry King spoke with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks about the wrongful convictions of the West Memphis ThreeDamien Echols, one of the three, is on death row in Arkansas.  Watch a clip of the show.

It is so great to see some attention being paid to this case, especially just days before the Arkansas Supreme Court is set to hold a hearing on Echols' case.

Last month, supporters sent Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe 4462 printed postcards and 4515 email-cards pleading for him to support a new trial for Damien Echols.

I'll be posting updates about Damien's case as new developments occur.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | 1 comments



New Developments in the Troy Davis Case

Posted by Jessica Lewis, Guest Blogger on September 7th, 2010

On August 24, U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. rejected Troy Davis' claims of innocence, arguing that, although the new evidence presented casts some doubt on Davis's guilt, it mostly lacks "probative value" and is not enough to prove innocence. He called it "largely smoke and mirrors."

Davis's lawyers presented the evidence during a hearing on June 23 and 24 of this year. This federal evidentiary hearing was ordered by the U. S. Supreme Court (the first time the Supreme Court has ordered such a hearing in 50 years) after reviewing affidavits provided by Davis's lawyers that stated that seven of the nine original witnesses against Davis recanted their testimony. As there was no physical evidence connecting Davis to the shooting, the majority of the case against Davis was built around eyewitness testimony, so the recantations were a significant development.

However, Judge Moore said that of the seven witnesses to admit to falsely testifying, only one was completely credible (although not important to the conviction) and two were partially credible (but would "only minimally diminish the state's case"). The other four, he said, would have had no impact on the state's case.

Davis's lawyers had wanted to call several witnesses to the stand who had signed sworn declarations stating that Sylvester "Redd" Coles, who was present at the scene of the crime, admitted to them that he was the true killer. However, Judge Moore refused to allow them to testify, arguing that in order for their testimony to be valid, Davis's lawyers must have first subpoenaed Coles so that he could testify on his own behalf.

Judge Moore did, however, state that executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. He then reiterated that he does not believe that Troy Davis is innocent.

Davis was convicted of shooting an off-duty police officer who tried to intervene in a fight between two men. Davis claims he was just a witness who ran away when he heard shots fired. Coles (armed with a lawyer by his side) almost immediately went to the police station to clear his own name and implicate Davis as the shooter. Although there was no physical evidence, the police arrested Davis for murder.

Due to the lack of evidence and the sheer number of witnesses who have recanted their testimony, Troy Davis's case has garnered international attention. Even the Pope has spoken out in support of Davis.

After 19 years, Davis's case has been heard by every level of the court and he has received a stay of execution three times. In his order, Judge Moore suggested that Davis appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Davis' lawyers are doing everything they can to make sure their client is not executed before he is able to prove his innocence once and for all.

Click here to take action.




A life you saved

Posted by Stefanie on September 3rd, 2010

This is the face of man whose life you helped save.

"It feels like the world has stopped...Our family has gone through a lot...I'd like to thank Governor Strickland for being a just man," said Kevin's older brother Charles upon hearing the news that his younger brother would live past September 15th--that he would live to embrace his family one more time and celebrate another birthday. 

Thanks to supporters and activists like you, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland spared Kevin Keith from execution yesterday.

Strickland, who is facing a tough reelection battle and was presented with an 8-0 recommendation against clemency from the Ohio Parole Board, managed to see past political ambition and expediency and summoned the courage to do what was right.  He recognized that the execution of an innocent man could not be undone. He weighed his options and cast his vote for life.

This heroic decision is a reminder that committed individuals can make a difference--that each and every one of our actions matter--that one life matters.  If you feel moved to thank Governor Strickland, his contact info and a sample letter are below.

Thank you for standing with us as we work to end the death penalty. Thanks to you, the tide is turning.

Please consider supporting the crucial work of Death Penalty Focus. We could not do it without you.



Contact Info and Template Thank You Letter to Governor Strickland

Governor's Office
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6108

Phone/Fax

General Info: (614) 466-3555
Fax: (614) 466-9354

Online: http://governor.ohio.gov/Default.aspx?tabid=150

Dear Governor Strickland,

Thank you for granting clemency to Kevin Keith.

As you noted in your commutation statement, many legitimate questions have been raised regarding the evidence in support of Mr. Keith's conviction. This evidence of innocence was never presented in its entirety before any court or jury. It would have been a tragic mistake to execute Mr. Keith when such grave doubts linger about his guilt.

This year, you demonstrated your commitment to improving the fairness and accuracy of Ohio's criminal justice system by signing into law comprehensive reform legislation to combat wrongful convictions. By granting clemency to Mr. Keith, you upheld that commitment.

I commend you for recognizing that there is no room for error when a life is at stake.

Sincerely,

Posted in Blog, Innocence | no comments



Special Announcement

Posted by Mike Farrell on August 26th, 2010
Lance Lindsey
Lance Lindsey

As you're aware, Death Penalty Focus has had the extraordinary good fortune to have an Executive Director, Lance Lindsey, who has advanced the cause of abolition in myriad ways over the past fifteen years.  His devotion to the issue, coupled with his enormous intelligence, integrity and strength, has been central to our great progress during his tenure.  We are everlastingly grateful for the huge contributions that he has made, both to DPF and to the abolition movement at large.

That being so, it is with decidedly mixed feelings that I write to say that Lance Lindsey has decided to embark on the next stage of his life and has thus announced his very well-deserved retirement as of April 2011.  All of us who have had the privilege of working closely with Lance lament the idea of his departure, but at the same time we celebrate our great fortune in having had such an outstanding leader for these powerfully productive years.  We know that his devotion to the cause and his support of DPF will remain strong.

Due in large part to Lance's leadership, DPF stands at the strongest point in its history.  Our circle of members and supporters has grown steadily, our programs are active and effective, our extraordinary staff continues its exemplary work, and our financial position, thanks to all of you who provide such generous support, is stable.  The abolition movement, always facing daunting odds, has made tremendous progress in public education and advocacy with DPF in the forefront.   

We are also fortunate at DPF to have an active and supportive board of directors who will soon undertake a national search for a new Executive Director.  Having once found Lance Lindsey, we are confident that we will again find the right candidate to lead DPF  toward what is now clearly inevitable: the abolition of state killing.  In that pursuit, we will continue this vital work without interruption. 

Please watch our website for the job posting and additional information.  As the organization transitions to new staff leadership, please keep us--and our goal--in your thoughts.  We will keep you advised of progress. 

Oh behalf of Lance and the Board of Directors of DPF, thank you for your ongoing commitment. 

Peace!




Mike Farrell
President, Death Penalty Focus

Posted in Blog | no comments



Kevin Keith Could be Executed Despite Evidence of Innocence Unless Governor Intervenes

Posted by Stefanie on August 25th, 2010
Kevin Keith

A possibly innocent man will die unless Ohio Governor Ted Strickland heeds the concerns of numerous law enforcement officials and tens of thousands of concerned citizens. Kevin Keith is scheduled for execution September 15th for a crime he likely didn't commit.  

Mr. Keith's conviction centered on flawed eyewitness identification. The key witness against Mr. Keith first told four people he could not identify the shooter because the shooter was wearing a mask. It wasn't until the police showed this witness a highly suggestive photo lineup, with Mr. Keith's face made larger than the others, that the witness picked out Mr. Keith.

This blog is continued on CARE2...


Posted in Blog, Innocence | no comments



CA Governor “borrowing” $64 million from the general fund to begin construction of the new death row housing facility

Posted by Stefanie on August 11th, 2010

Well it is hard to believe but Governor Schwarzenegger has announced that he plans to “borrow” $64 million from the general fund to begin construction of the new death row housing facility. California has no budget, the Governor wants to furlough State workers, and the state is running a massive deficit, but apparently the Governor has decided the death penalty in more important. Go figure.

This is what Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblyman Jared Huffman had to say

Statement from Senator Mark Leno:

”While California is in the midst of a dire financial crisis, the Schwarzenegger Administration is pushing forward with the expansion of San Quentin’s death row, without first exploring any alternatives. I continue to oppose this deeply flawed project. The proposed construction and operating costs will exceed $1.6 billion over the next 11 years, and despite the cost and increased capacity, the new inmate complex would run out of space by 2014. The governor’s proposal to use General Fund dollars for this ill-conceived project at a time when he is decimating support for our children’s education and the sustenance of services for seniors and children makes no sense at all. The Schwarzenegger Administration should take the necessary steps to explore alternatives to the expansion of San Quentin before acting recklessly with taxpayer dollars and one of the California coast’s most beautiful and precious stretches of land.”

Statement from Assemblymember Jared Huffman:

“At a time when the state may be two weeks away from sending IOU’s and when the Governor is attempting to furlough 156,000 state workers citing our impending cash crisis, it is stunningly hypocritical that he is surreptitiously – and quite possibly illegally – borrowing $64 million from the state’s deteriorating General Fund in order to advance his favorite pet prison project: the $400 million “Cadillac Death Row” at San Quentin. It’s a project that has been stalled by the budget crisis, by the courts, and by the inability to sell bonds due to pending litigation and the uncertain legality of proceeding with construction. It’s also a project that the Legislative Analyst found to be so wildly expensive that they recommended scrapping it, and the State Auditor concluded that it would likely provide a very short-term solution for housing condemned inmates since the condemned inmate population would exceed its undersized capacity within three years of completion. If built, this would be the most expensive inmate housing ever built, at a cost of more than $500,000 per cell.

Read the full statements.

Now is the time to remind the Governor that California could save $1 billion in five years by replacing the death penalty with life without paroleWatch this video and then tell the Governor to "Cut This!"


Posted in Blog, Cost | no comments



Public Opinion is Shifting

Posted by Aarti on July 27th, 2010
www.californiacrimevictims.org

Last week, you may have read that 70% of Californians support the death penalty according to a new Field Poll.  Several newspaper headlines cited that figure.  Upon further reading, however, we learn that 42 percent of voters prefer life in prison without parole and 41 percent prefer death when given a choice between the two sentences.

The last time the Field Poll asked that question, in 2000, it found that 44 percent chose the death penalty and 37 percent favored life without parole.

These statistics reflect a marked shift in public opinion.  People are realizing that life without parole is swift, severe, and cost-effective.

While the 70 percent figure represents abstract support for the death penalty, the majority of Californians realize that the death penalty is bad public policy and prefer life without parole.

"The majority of Californians now favor permanent imprisonment over the death penalty. That includes murder victims' family members like me," said Judy Kerr in a letter to the Sacramento Bee editor.

"Victims' families know that the death penalty does not bring back a loved one, that the death penalty wastes millions each year and that the death penalty does nothing but prolong grief and healing through endless appeals. Public opinion is shifting, and this is why."

Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | 1 comments



Of polls and leadership

Posted by Margo Schulter on July 20th, 2010

In a recent article, reporter Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle asks whether candidates running for statewide office, such as our former and perhaps next Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, Jr., and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who is running for Attorney General, may lose votes because of their opposition to the death penalty.

In fact, while California voters "support" the death penalty in the abstract, further questioning reveals that they actually prefer the alternative of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP), also known as permanent imprisonment, or better yet LWOP plus a provision for restitution by the prisoner to the victims' compensation fund (LWOP+R).

When offered a choice between death and LWOP, 55% of Californians polled in 2009 by the Survey Research Center at the University of Virginia preferred LWOP, and only 37% the death penalty, with 8% unsure. When LWOP+R was offered, only 26% still preferred the death penalty, while more than 66% preferred LWOP+R.

In California, LWOP, or permanent imprisonment, has actually been in place since 1977 for all persons convicted of capital crimes who are not sentenced to death. The categories of murder with "special circumstances" automatically subject to permanent
imprisonment were greatly expanded in 1978 by the Murder Penalty Initiative (Proposition 7).

Since 1977, over 3700 prisoners in Callfornia have been sentenced to LWOP, and only a handful have been released, those later found to be actually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.  One hundred and thirty eight death row prisoners have been released due to wrongful conviction nationwide since 1972. Apart from these cases of exoneration, permanent imprisonment in our state means exactly what it says.  A small number of prisoners who committed their crimes before the 1977 and 1978 LWOP statutes were enacted, such as Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson, get periodic parole hearings under an earlier law. 

Further, restitution, the "R" part of LWOP+R, is already in good part the law in California. Ironically, however, opportunities to perform various forms of work and service whose proceeds can be devoted to crime victims and their families are now often sought by individuals serving LWOP sentences but denied to them due to our overcrowded facilities. Adequate program funding could make LWOP+R not only the ideal but the consistent reality in our state, a goal worthy of action through either the Legislature or a voter initiative.

As the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ) showed in its report of 2008, replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment would save over $125 million a year. This money could be used both to strengthen prisoner
restitution programs, and to assist law enforcement at a time when in many of our counties only about 50% of murderers are caught, convicted, and imprisoned. Victim advocates stress the importance of reopening "cold cases" and getting killers off our
streets, thus promoting the public safety and doing some justice for forgotten murder victims and their families.

In short, conscientious and farsighted candidates for statewide office can and should exercise responsive and responsible leadership by fully considering the alternatives to the death penalty.

Posted in Blog, Cost | no comments



Innocence Matters!

Posted by Stefanie on July 13th, 2010
Damien Echols

Check out my blog post about Damien Echols on Care2 today.  Please add a comment and vote in the poll. We are trying to generate as many letters as we can to Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe before Damien's September 30th hearing.  Take Action here.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | 3 comments



Swimming Against the Death Penalty

Posted by Margaret Summers, NCADP on July 7th, 2010

What would prompt someone to spend a beautiful summer day in July diving into and swimming the chilly, choppy, dangerous waters between "The Rock" - the former maximum-security prison on Alcatraz Island - and the foot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge?

For Lynn Greer, 41, it's the prospect of generating money for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP), a statewide citizens' organization dedicated to ending capital punishment in that state. Greer, a member of VADP's Board of Directors, plans to fundraise, and focus public attention on the issue of innocent people being wrongfully convicted and executed, by participating in the July 18, 2010 Alcatraz Challenge Aquathlon & Alcatraz Challenge Swim.

The annual Alcatraz Challenge Aquathlon & Alcatraz Challenge Swim, sponsored by Tri-California Events, Inc., is a USA Triathlon-sanctioned swimming and running competition. Greer chose the event as the vehicle for her fundraising and public education effort.

Greer's goal is to raise contributions in recognition of each of the 138 prisoners exonerated from death row since 1973 due to their innocence. Beginning at 8 a.m. Pacific Time on July 18, Greer will navigate the extremely strong ocean current around Alcatraz and swim 1.5 miles to the East Beach of Crissy Field in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Presidio Park.

Undaunted by the rough, freezing waters, Greer looks forward to the challenge. "The last time I participated in this event 10 years ago, I completed the entire triathlon in less than four hours," she says. "It is not for novices. This time, I am just focusing on the swim." She trains by swimming five to seven miles a week in the Washington, D.C. area.

Greer may be swimming against physical tides, but the "tide" of public and criminal justice opinion is gradually turning against capital punishment, especially with respect to wrongful convictions and executions. In a recent Rasmussen Reports opinion poll, 73 percent said they are concerned about innocent people executed by mistake, with 40 percent saying they are "very concerned."

Moreover, in 2009, the American Law Institute (ALI), the leading independent scholarly institute providing support for legal theories that undergird state criminal justice systems, removed the death penalty from its Model Penal Code. Among other things, the ALI cited the minimal safeguards against mistaken convictions and executions.

Greer notes that of the 35 states that still have the death penalty on their books, Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions carried out between 1976 and 2009 (Texas 460; Virginia 107). Moreover, she says, California, site of the athletic challenge, has a death row population of 690, but executions in the state are currently on hold due to legal challenges regarding its three-drug lethal injection execution protocol.

"Virginia and the other states implementing the death penalty should end it," asserts Greer. "It is a fatally flawed public policy which puts innocent people at risk for wrongful conviction and execution. By swimming in the Alcatraz Challenge, I expect to increase public awareness regarding the innocence issue."

# # #

For more information about Lynn Greer's swim against the death penalty, visit her web page at http://www.firstgiving.com/lynn_greer.

Posted in Blog | no comments



Cut This: The Death Penalty Video

Posted by Stefanie on June 29th, 2010

Check out this amazing video!

We know that advocates and community members from across the state are fighting to ensure that the vital social services that make up the safety net for California's most vulnerable populations aren't slashed. We're here with a small piece of the solution. Need to cut something? Cut this: the death penalty.

Cut This: The Death Penalty from aclunc on Vimeo.

Share this video on Facebook and Twitter!




AOL News: Death Penalty Only Hurts Victims' Families

Posted by Aarti on June 28th, 2010
www.californiacrimevictims.org

Check out this great piece by Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation director Beth Wood, "Death Penalty Only Hurts Victims' Families" posted on AOL News. The piece makes special mention of CCV and our work in California.

Also, make sure to check out CCV's latest newsletter to read about our meeting with Governor Schwarzenegger's staff and other California officials, see pictures from recent events, and find information on county coalitions throughout California! CCV Summer News 2010.

Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | no comments



The June issue of The Sentry is here!

Posted by Stefanie on June 25th, 2010

What's inside:

  • News from Around the World
  • A report on the International Conference held in San Francisco this month.
  • Unsolved Homicides: A Public Safety Crisis by Aqeela Sherrills
  • Photos from the Annual Awards Dinner
  • New Books
  • The Inland Valley Chapter of DPF presents the 2010 Student Essay Contest Winners! 
  • Photo Gallery

The Sentry is produced in easy-to-print .pdf format. CHECK IT OUT NOW!

Posted in Blog, Resources | no comments



NH Supreme Court Justice on the Death Penalty

Posted by The Hon. Joseph P. Nadeau, Retired Justice of the Supreme Court of New Hampshire on June 25th, 2010

It has been my good fortune to serve as a judge in New Hampshire for thirty-seven years. For thirteen of those years I was presiding justice of the Durham District Court. I served as a justice of the Superior Court for eighteen years, nine of which I spent as chief justice. And I sat on the Supreme Court for six years before retiring in December of 2005. I am proud of our judicial system and the effort of judges in all our courts to treat people fairly and equally, and to protect their individual rights.

While serving as a judge, I rarely expressed my opinion on capital punishment privately, and until now I never expressed my opinion publicly. Nor did I let my personal opinions influence my judicial decisions. In fact, in 1998 I presided over the capital murder case of Gordon Perry, and on every motion filed on his behalf challenging New Hampshire’s capital punishment statute, I ruled he had not established that the law violated our constitution.

Last week, I appeared before the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty, whose members I commend for their willingness to undertake the important and challenging task assigned to them by the legislature . My purpose in speaking to the commission was not to talk about facts and statistics or trials and cases but to address the moral issue of death as punishment.

The way we have been dealing with the death penalty for years is to talk about enacting laws, adopting procedures, establishing practices and providing mechanisms, as if by creating an elaborate process we could somehow sanitize the death penalty and thereby ignore the moral issues that capital punishment presents. We cannot.

I appeared before the Commission to answer one straightforward but complex question: Do I believe the systematic killing of another human being by the state, in my name, is justified?

My answer to that question is, No.

During my tenure as a judge, I met many people with strong opinions about capital punishment.  Through most of that period, over two thirds of those polled in the United States regularly supported the death penalty. Some people I respect still do. So you would think that anyone looking for answers based upon public opinion or strongly held views should have an easy task.

What is the problem, then?  In the face of these odds, why do we continue to struggle with the acceptability of death as punishment?  I believe one reason we engage in this process is that no matter what some people say publicly about capital punishment, deep inside many are not as certain as they proclaim.

I believe another reason is that our thinking evolves, as people, technology, and societies progress. And what is acceptable at one time in our history may become unwelcome at another. If that is true then, we are encouraged to re-examine our core principles and to consider whether death continues to be an acceptable punishment in New Hampshire.

I have great respect for the offices of the Attorney General and the Public Defender and for the integrity and competence with which the attorneys in those offices handle homicide cases. The primary source of my continuing concern about the death penalty, however, is not New Hampshire’s limited capital murder experience but my own professional exposure to criminal justice issues.

There is no question that people who commit murder must be punished and should be removed from society. Life in prison without parole does both. It is interesting to note that two states, New Hampshire, which has not employed the death penalty since before Pearl Harbor, and North Dakota which does not condone capital punishment, did not need death to achieve the lowest murder rates in the nation every year of this century.

No legal system is perfect. Human beings make mistakes. That is one reason we accept the notion that occasionally the guilty will go free and the innocent will be convicted.  But I do not believe anyone accepts the notion that it is alright for a person to be wrongfully executed. So with the most respected judicial system in the world, how can we willingly embrace a sentence which cannot be reversed after it is imposed; and how can we continue to believe that it is morally acceptable for the state to take a human life?

My answer is, we cannot.

As most of us, I have never experienced the emotions felt by a murder victim’s loved ones, and I may never know for sure that I could not be persuaded by the desire for personal revenge to seek the death penalty for a person I knew killed someone I love. But for me, neither of these deficiencies makes opposition to the death penalty any less compelling.

I am not a death penalty expert.

I am not a spokesperson for the judiciary.

I am one New Hampshire citizen; one person, who believes it is not necessary to kill to show that killing is wrong.

So after thirty-seven years on the bench; after presiding over hundreds of jury trials; after sitting on numerous criminal cases; after listening to witnesses in scores of sentencing hearings; after considering information in thousands of probation reports; after imposing sentences upon countless convicted defendants; after entertaining the arguments of lawyers at every level of skill; after talking with a host of judges and corrections officials; and after continued personal reflection; this is what I believe about capital punishment:

  • The threat of its use is not a deterrent to the commission of a homicide, because those who kill do not consider the sentence before they act or do not expect to be caught, or both.
  • The threat of its use is not necessary to protect the people of New Hampshire for the same reason.
  • Its abolition does not dishonor those who serve in law enforcement because honor comes from personal pride and earned respect, not from the ability of the state to execute a human being.
  • Its abolition does not diminish the voice of murder victims because the right of all victims to be heard is intended to come at the time defendants are sentenced not at the time they are charged.
  • It provides no more justice than life in prison without parole because justice is not measured by the sentences we impose.
  • To seek and carry out the death penalty costs the state much more in time and taxes than to prosecute and confine a person to prison for life.
  • To seek and carry out the death penalty consumes inordinate resources of courts, prosecution, defense and law enforcement.
  • The decision whether to seek the death penalty is too easily swayed by public opinion, political pressure and media attention.
  • Its potential as a prosecutorial tool is outweighed by its capacity for misuse.
  • It is too easily subject to selective prosecution.
  • It is too likely to be imposed upon minorities and the poor.
  • It is too likely to depend upon the persuasiveness of lawyers.
  • Its imposition is too readily subject to the emotions of individual jurors.
  • Its imposition is too clearly dependent upon the composition of the particular jury empanelled for each case.
  • It inevitably leads to disparate sentences.
  • It creates the unacceptable risk that a person may be wrongfully executed.
  • It exalts rage over reason.
  • It diminishes our character as a people.
  • And in the end, I believe it serves just one purpose: vengeance.

It is for these reasons, and from a personal abhorrence of the premeditated execution of a human being by the state, that I appeared before the Commission to speak in favor of the abolition of the death penalty in New Hampshire.




San Bernardino Jury Rejects Death Sentence

Posted by Stefanie on June 14th, 2010

Some good news on the sentencing front in California.  Juries in San Bernardino County, known for its high number of death verdicts, have started to turn away from the death penalty. Jurors have reject death in at least three cases in as many months. In the most recent case, jurors rejected a death sentence in favor of life without parole for Mathew Manzano.  

The prosecuting attorney in the Manzano made an interesting comment to the Press-Enterprise:

"The reality is, life in prison without the possibility of parole is the better of the two punishments," said Supervising Deputy District Attorney Michael McDowell. "But there is the emotional quality about the title of 'death,' even though it would likely never be carried out."

Even prosecutors are beginning to acknowledge that the death penalty is a hollow promise, which begs the question: Why is California still spending so much money on a sentence that will never be carried out when we have life without parole as an alternative?

Posted in Blog, Sentencing | no comments



From San Quentin to Auschwitz

Posted by Lance Lindsey on June 8th, 2010

By SCOTT CHRISTIANSON

Fifty years ago, in May 1960, two events altered how many Americans viewed capital punishment and the Holocaust.

In California, after a 12-year fight on death row, Caryl Chessman was executed at San Quentin prison. A few weeks later, in Buenos Aires, Israeli agents seized Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi fugitive who helped send more than 400,000 Jewish men, women and children to their deaths. His public trial helped to reawaken global awareness about Germany's genocide against the Jews.

While there were many differences between the two cases, both involved the killing apparatus known as the gas chamber.

Eugenicists had envisioned lethal gas as a quick, practical, and humane approach to cull society of its burdensome "unfit." After the technology was developed in the United States by industry's chemical warfare and pesticide complex, the execution method was first carried out in Nevada in 1924, on an imprisoned Chinese immigrant from San Francisco, Gee Jon, who had been sentenced for murder.

By the late 1930s, seven additional states including California had adopted lethal gas as their official method of "humane" capital punishment instead of hanging or electrocution. One company, Eaton Metal Products of Denver, built several patented gas chambers to carry out hundreds of legal executions using hydrogen cyanide. German, American and British chemical firms collaborated in a cartel that manufactured massive quantities of deadly Zyklon-B. Many prominent thinkers of the day, including Nobel Prize-winning scientist Alexis Carrel, openly recommended the lethal chamber for a wide array of social outcasts.

But then the Nazi regime picked up on the idea, making gas chambers their preferred instrument for mass murder. Suddenly, the innocent victims numbered in the millions.

The highly publicized Chessman and Eichmann dramas revealed the horrors of gas-chamber executions and served to strip away the masks of kindness and indifference from capital punishment in general. As a result, both episodes helped turn many people in the world, including a majority of Americans, against executions.

It may seem hard to believe now, but from 1953 to 1966, the portion of Americans favoring the death penalty dropped from 70 to 42 percent, in tune with international trends. By the late 1960s all but 10 states abolished capital punishment. Executions became more and more infrequent, so that from 1968 to1977, nobody was legally executed in the United States.

During the moratorium, however, conservatives mounted a backlash to reinstitute capital punishment. As governor of California in 1973 Ronald Reagan became the first major figure to advocate a "better" method of execution. Although lethal injection had been used on a large scale by the Nazis, Reagan touted needle executions as "humane" and "painless." As lawmakers seized on the suggestion to repackage their old, discredited practice, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, California and other states eventually adopted it as their official method. Over the next several years, prison gas chambers at San Quentin and elsewhere became lethal injection chambers.

In 1994 a federal district court in San Francisco found execution by lethal gas to be "cruel and unusual punishment," and the last gassing was carried out in 1999 in Arizona, leaving lethal injection as the dominant surviving method.

Now, however, based on more than a quarter-century of experience with carrying out lethal injection executions in the United States, needle executions have also proved problematic, on several counts. Many appear to have been botched, and the participation of medical personnel in such procedures presents a huge ethical quandary for healers bound by the Hippocratic oath. In a deeper sense, spurred by the lessons of the gas chamber, pretexts of killing with kindness and humane executions went out with the 20th century, thereby removing another rationale for the death penalty.

Today, American popular support for capital punishment may be waning once again. The percentage favoring executions dropped from 80 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 2009, and that reflects only part of the decline, for if given an alternative, a majority of the public prefers life without parole. Killing is not the answer.

Scott Christianson is the award-winning author of numerous books, including The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, published by the University of California Press.

Posted in Blog, Resources | no comments



Readers react to the Democratic Party's call for ending CA's death penalty

Posted by Aarti on May 24th, 2010

Today, the San Francisco Chronicle posted three fantastic letters to the editor responding to the Democratic Party's call for an end to the death penalty.

Follow the link below to read letters by Judy Kerr, a murder victim family member, Nick Scales, a Republican, and Nancy Oliveira, a concerned citizen:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/05/24/ED471DIOU9.DTL




Great Article - "Dems want to scrap death penalty in California"

Posted by Yoko on May 20th, 2010

This piece written by Bob Egelko is fantastic!  I'd like to share this link with you:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/05/20/MN2J1DF46L.DTL


Posted in Blog, Cost | 1 comments



US Supreme court cites international standards of decency -- quick note

Posted by Elizabeth Zitrin, International Coordinator, on May 17th, 2010

The United State Supreme Court ruled today that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole when the crime does not involve murder, given the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority decision of the US Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, said that the sentence is exceedingly rare," that “a national consensus has developed against it and it has been “rejected the world over.”


“The judgment of the world’s nations that a particular sentencing practice is inconsistent with basic principles of decency,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “demonstrates that the court’s rationale has respected reasoning to support it.”

This reasoning applies to the death penalty as well.  We're on our way.




50 Years of Struggle Against the Death Penalty

Posted by Stefanie on May 11th, 2010
Lance Lindsey
Lance Lindsey, Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus

May 2, 2010 marked that 50-year anniversary of the execution of Caryl Chessman. Chessman's execution was incredibly controversial and was the catalyst for many young people to become activists against the death penalty.  DPF's own Executive Director, Lance Lindsey, remembers the days and weeks leading up to the execution in vivid detail. The case sparked his activism against the death penalty.  Attorney General Jerry Brown was one of the most vocal opponents of the execution as he lobbied his father, then-Governor Pat Brown to halt it. Governor Pat Brown eventually allowed the execution to go forward, but later admitted that it was one of his biggest regrets in his book Public Justice, Private Mercy.

We'd like to express our gratitude to the hundreds of supporters who have been fighting the good fight against the death penalty since 1960, and the tens of thousands more who have joined the struggle since then.

Take a look at this short booklet featuring some of these extraordinary heroes.

Let's make sure it doesn't take another fifty years to get rid of the death penalty once and for all.  We are getting closer every day.

Posted in Blog, Resources | no comments



Photos from DPF's 2010 Awards Dinner

Posted by Stefanie on May 11th, 2010

Photos from DPF's Annual Awards Dinner held on April 21, 2010 in Beverly Hills.  All photos are by Virginia Van Zandt, except the photo of Jane Kaczmarek which is by George Schulman.  Pictured from left to right: Alec Baldwin, Hector Elizondo, Robbie Conal with Sherry and Leo Frumkin, Jane Kaczmarek, Sr. Suzanne Jabro, James Cromwell, Richard Dieter, and Elizabeth Banks. (Photos are copyrighted and may not be used without permission).

Alec Baldwin

Hector ElizondoSherry and Leo FrumkinJane KaczmarekSr. Suzanne JabroJames CromwellDick Dieter

Elizabeth Banks

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The Empty Chair

Posted by Lance Lindsey on May 5th, 2010
Reverend Julia Older

Rev. Julia Older is the pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Redwood City (CA). I heard her deliver this powerful sermon on Sunday, April 11th.  DPF is very grateful to Reverend Older and her congregation for their generous support of our work.  It has been edited for length.

***

This is a sermon about institutional punishment and justice.

We are a congregation that not only cares theoretically about justice, we are a community that works in a variety of ways to make this country, this community, this culture, more just and more humane.*

I'm hoping this morning to stir up a few more questions. Maybe you'll want to argue with me. That's good. Being awake and engaged is moral work.

I think that almost all of us here, are horrified at the size and cost of the CA prison system, the strength of the prison guards union and we strongly disapprove of the death penalty, for pragmatic reasons, even if we have some hesitation about it in an ultimate way. We had a forum and took a vote eight years ago and this congregation was all but unanimous in opposition.

If we could not keep truly dangerous people away from society, we might have to have the death penalty. But we do have the ability to keep people who are dangerous away from others. We do it regularly. And often without much fanfare.

It is interesting to observe that some cases get major publicity and get us all stirred up and some stories, equally horrifying, never get newspaper coverage. We learn occasionally about those quiet stories in circuitous ways.

The press regularly stirs up our myths about people behind bars. Bad headlines get attention. Dramatic stories sell papers. Lurid images haunt the public's imagination.

There are stories about a facility like San Quentin that make us both apprehensive and intensely intrigued. We project our nightmares onto such a facility and onto the people who live there.

It is a place of despair. It is life killing. It is probably also a kind of school for inmates to learn more about doing criminal things. Most inmates are eventually released and the recidivism rate is close to 70%.

Can you imagine how hard it would be to remember your worth and dignity if you are kept locked up and have to surrender your most basic freedom? How could you move back into the main stream without damage?

Now some of you may think we are not tough enough on crime. Here's the thing: If you treat people as if they are horrible, how do they find the inner resources to act in an upright manner? Especially when they are released and required to go back to the same environment they came from. The place where perhaps they were part of a gang and had few resources to escape the pressure of gang life?

What would happen if we began to understand the commission of a crime as an act of desperation or the result of real or imagined lack of options- rather than an expression of some innate evil character?

What would happen to society if places of incarceration were more like schools and taught trades and attempted to close the gaps of opportunity in our society?

Our Unitarian Universalist first principle is the statement that we believe in the worth and dignity of every human being. The worth and dignity.

Perhaps we don't have to treat everyone as if they are good, though I myself believe that given what they need, almost all people are good, but this worth and dignity principle does require that we hold off treating anyone as less than human.

It is pragmatic, too. To treat people with respect and courtesy is far more likely to generate good behavior than to treat people as if they are contemptible.

A terrible thing happens to guards who are trained to treat people as if they are abhorrent. They themselves become corrupted. Trying to work in institutions that dehumanize other people, that keep people in cages, is beyond exhausting. It takes an unimaginable toll.

Frankly, the very idea of "punishment" is confusing to me. My personal opinion is that "punishment" doesn't much work. Even with kids. Our kids. Understanding the effects of our actions works. Encouraging empathy helps. Rehabilitation, retraining, and skills development cut down on recidivism rates.

If we want to make society safer, don't you think we should put our money toward education? Particularly early childhood enrichment? If I understand the CA state budget, we spend more on maintaining Death Row than we do on Head Start.

It's hard to know which things to say about prisons and the ultimate punishment, the death penalty. I'll start with cost:

Our death penalty system costs California taxpayers $137 million each year, according to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. Death penalty trials cost local taxpayers an additional $20 million per year at the current pace of 20 to 30 sentences per year. We have no firm evidence that any of this has been shown to be a deterrent or even help close unsolved homicide cases.

In contrast, permanent imprisonment - lifelong incarceration with no chance of parole - for all inmates currently on Death Row would cost under 12 million.

These are many, many anti-death penalty arguments, but one of the most important, surely, is how arbitrary it is. You know many stories, I'm sure. Probably you've all read how unevenly the sentence is applied, how many more people of color are given harsher sentences and the death penalty. Overworked public defenders and bad representation. Crummy evidence, faulty eye witness accounts and lack of access to DNA testing. I can't understand the refusal to allow DNA testing if an execution is scheduled.

I'll add one more bit that makes the soundness of the system incomprehensible to me. This emerged from my work as a chaplain at Napa State hospital, which has a public and a prison side. On both sides there are people who've committed nightmarish violent acts. On the prison side they are considered incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

Here's the big question that haunts me: "Why do some stories make the news for weeks and weeks and others, thank goodness, are never covered by the press?" We know what becomes of those who make the news and the public cries out for punishment.

In contrast, at the hospital, one soft-spoken woman of small stature had killed her children. You probably never heard of her. I don't know the circumstances of that woman's actions but I'm glad she is in an institution. She is not in touch with reality. If she ever gets better, she'll have to deal with her loss and guilt. She is safe where she is. And we are safe from her. I have no need to put her in maximum security. She is treated humanely by doctors and nurses, and even guards, who treat her more as a patient more than a convict.

Because it is a hospital, people were commonly treated with courtesy even on the locked side. The exceptions I saw were when guards came in from the outside to transport someone to another facility. It was quite a contrast.

One of my most delicate patients was shackled and taken to a medical facility by an armed transport team from the outside when she was dying of cancer. She had had a tragic life. Poverty. Brutality. Her crime was prostitution. When I knew her at Napa, she was living in the safest place she had ever known. The outside guards treated her as if she might instantly spring up and attack them. If you have seen animal control officers handle a vicious animal, that's how these guards were handling her.

Those guards had been damaged by their work. My patient was quiet and compliant through it all. I was the one in tears.

The seriousness of some of the crimes at Napa are sufficient to fire your imagination, but the patients there are generally treated respectfully and commonly respond in kind.A different attorney, a different county, a different jury, different coverage by the press and, some of my congregants would have been on death row. It is so capricious!

Would I feel the same if the victim were someone close to me? I hope so. I did go through a terrible time with my friend Cathy Harrington, a UU minister who has spoken here at UUFRC two times. Her daughter and a roommate were killed by an acquaintance. I went with Cathy to the arraignment. Seeing Eric, the murderer, was creepy. He was repulsive to me. Jealousy and rage were part of his motive but I can't really imagine how he, or anyone, could do did such a thing. He is in prison now for life. Cathy and her family are coping. Cathy says her life was utterly destroyed, shattered and torn away and she's living a different life now.

If she had pressed for the death penalty, the trial and appeals would probably still be going on. They would go on for years. And some of the deep grieving would be delayed until after the verdict and appeals and execution.

I think the fight to have someone executed is a way of pushing the grief away, trying to expunge the legitimate rage and focusing on the hope that once justice is done, life will come back as it was. I know you have heard murder victims families talk about holding on until after the execution as if suddenly it will be better. I believe that the hard work of building a new life will only be beginning.

I read in the New York Times that "Last fall the American Law Institute, which created the framework for modern capital punishment almost 50 years ago, pronounced it a failure. According to Franklin Zimring, professor of Law at Berkeley, this institute has been the only intellectually respectable support for the death penalty in the country and they voted in October to (quote) " disavow the structure they had created citing the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering the death penalty."

What this means is that law students who take criminal law from this year on will learn that these lawyers and judges- the ones whose works they read everyday- have said that the death penalty in the United States is a moral and practical failure." (Jan 4, 2010 New York Times: Capital Punishment)

You know I say often, "We are all in this together." This is as succinct a statement of my theology as I can make. "We are all in this together." And what affects the earth or our society, we all carry. We carry in our very bodies what is broken whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Happily we carry hope as well. As part of the web, all reverberations reach us: the health of our communities, the effects of poverty, the treatment of prisoners, the expectations we place on prison workers, the weight of violence as a solution to any problem, and the goodness of someone like Jody Lewen working at San Quentin.

I really do believe in the worth and dignity of every person. I grieve for damaged lives of the patients at Napa, and their loved ones, and the strain of their caregivers.

I grieve for inmates at San Quentin and their guards. Especially those who work on death row.



Posted in Blog, Religion | 1 comments



Wilbert Rideau on NPR's Fresh Air; will be in CA next month

Posted by Stefanie on April 27th, 2010
Wilbert Rideau

Wilbert Rideau was sentenced to death in Louisiana at the age of 19. After a decade on death row, his sentence was changed and he was transferred to the notorious Angola prison.  He has a new book out titled  "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance." 

Listen to him on NPR's Fresh Air

Rideau will be speaking in Marin on Thursday, June 3rd at Book Passage. More details are available on our Events page.  You can purchase the book from independently owned Book Passage.

Posted in Blog, Resources | 1 comments



Justice for all crime victims, not just symbolism for a few.

Posted by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on April 26th, 2010
www.californiacrimevictims.org

California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CCV) released a new report earlier this month on unsolved homicides in California.  While we waste hundreds of millions of dollars on sentencing a handful of killers to death, 1,000 murders go unsolved each year.  Read the report: The Silent Crisis in California: Unsolved Murders.

Murder victim family members Judy Kerr, Aqeela Sherrills, and Nick and Amanda Wilcox delivered the report and a letter signed by 150 CCV supporters to the Governor and asked him to convert all 700 death sentences to permanent imprisonment.  Read more on the California Progress Report.

Read a new op-ed by Judy Kerr in the Capitol Weekly.

Read a new blog by Aqeela Sherrills on Care 2.

Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | no comments



Bud Welch on the Rachel Maddow Show

Posted by Stefanie on April 20th, 2010

Bud Welch was interviewed on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show." This month marks the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. Bud's daughter was among the 167 men, women and children killed. Bud Welch will share his personal story and mention his death penalty abolition work.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy




Justice Project Blog on Crime Labs

Posted by Stefanie on April 13th, 2010

John F. Terzano of The Justice Project just posted this blog "Crime Labs Need Independence and Robust Oversight to Ensure Justice" which discusses the recent crime lab scandal in San Francisco. 

I think the most interesting section is this: 

The majority of publicly operated crime labs are part of a law enforcement agency. As a result, crime lab employees may come to see themselves as part of a crime fighting team, rather than objective agents of science. Given that many forensic examinations involve subjective interpretations of data, the risk for bias is greater when the lab is structurally part of law enforcement.

I look forward to watching how the situation unfolds in San Francisco. I hope the upshot of the scandal is that real, much-needed reforms are adopted.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | 2 comments



A Club of 18 Nations the US must QUIT

Posted by Elizabeth Zitrin, International Coordinator, on April 1st, 2010

Amnesty International has released its report on Death Sentences and Executions 2009.

China has so many executions in a system that totally lacks transparency, so it is impossible to count the executions accurately. But it seems very clear that China executed more human beings in 2009 than all the other nations of the world combined.

Texas has a special grim place as well. With 24 executions in 2009, the State of Texas alone ranks 7th among NATIONS in executions, after China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States of America and Yemen.

Only 18 nations on the planet executed people in 2009.

It's high time the US resigned its membership in this shameful, deadly club.

Elizabeth Zitrin is Coordinator of Death Penalty Focus' International Outreach and Communications Project.

Watch the video of Elizabeth speaking at the United Nations in Geneva on behalf of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty at the Opening Ceremony of the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty.




Two DPF Honorees on the Radio

Posted by Shana on March 29th, 2010

On Friday, Death Penalty Focus and the Friends Committee on Legislation Education Fund honored three outstanding women for their work in criminal justice reform and to abolish the death penalty. Two of our honorees, Christine Thomas and Sister Catherine Connell were on the Capitol Public Radio program Insight earlier that day. List to them here: http://www.capradio.org/programs/insight/default.aspx?showid=7638&programid=10

Congrats to all three of our honorees!!

Posted in Blog | 1 comments



Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty in Honor of Victims' Rights Week

Posted by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on March 22nd, 2010
www.californiacrimevictims.org
Judy Kerr speaks in Berkeley on April 7.

Each April since 1981, rallies, candlelight vigils, and a host of commemorative activities take place to promote victims' rights and to honor crime victims and those who advocate on their behalf as part of National Crime Victims' Rights Week (NCVRW). This year’s NCVRW takes place April 18-24, 2010.

CCV has several events leading up to NCVRW to educate the public about the financial and societal impact of the death penalty on our communities and victims.  Please join us for an event in your area.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010 – Santa Clara, CA
Not In Our County: End the Death Penalty

Sponsored by the Santa Clara County Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

A panel discussion featuring:
Lawrence C. Marshall, Professor of Law, Stanford University
Mary Kay Raftery, Murder Victim Family Member, CCV Member
Darryl Stallworth, Former Prosecutor, Alameda County
Moderated by: Natasha Minsker, Death Penalty Policy Director, ACLU of Northern California

Wednesday, March 31, 2010; 6-8pm
Santa Clara University
Willeman Room
500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, California 95053

Please RSVP at: scccadp@aclunc.org.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010 – Berkeley, CA
Panel Discussion on the Death Penalty


Featuring:
Judy Kerr, Murder Victim Family Member, Northern California Outreach Coordinator for CCV (Above)
Darryl Stallworth, Former Prosecutor, Alameda County
Stefanie Faucher, Death Penalty Focus
Natasha Minsker, ACLU of Northern California

Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 7-9pm
Congregation Beth-El
1301 Oxford Street
Berkeley, CA

Saturday, April 10, 2010 – San Diego, CA
Panel Discussion on the Death Penalty

Sponsored by the Taxed to Death Coalition and the San Diego Chapter of Amnesty International

Featuring:
Aqeela Sherrills, Murder Victim Family Member, Southern California Outreach Coordinator for CCV
Timothy Atkins, Spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit

Saturday, April 10, 2010; 12-2:30pm
Point Loma Library
3701 Voltaire St.
San Diego, CA 92107-1606

April 12-17, 2010 – Los Angeles, CA
Forgiveness Project “F” Word Exhibit at Watts Art Gallery

Sponsored by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and The Reverence Project.

Featuring: Aqeela Sherrills, Murder Victim Family Member, Southern California Outreach Coordinator for CCV
More details TBA!

Monday, April 19, 2010 – Sacramento, CA
21st Annual Victims March on the Capitol


California State Capitol
West Steps – 10th Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

10am - Information Exchange Booths Open
11:30am – Program
CCV will have an information booth. Stop by!

Visit www.californiacrimevictims.org for more details on these events!

Can’t attend one of these events? Host a speaker at your school, congregation, or organization! CCV offers powerful and moving speakers throughout California who can share their unique perspectives on the death penalty. (For other locations, visit www.mvfr.org.)

Visit www.californiacrimevictims.org or contact Aarti Kelapure at aarti@deathpenalty.org or 415.262.0082.

Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | no comments



Unsung Hero

Posted by Mike Farrell on March 16th, 2010
Greg Wilhoit at a press conference.

I blogged about death row exoneree Greg Wilhoit on the Huffington Post today. 

Posted in Blog | no comments



DNA and the Death Penalty

Posted by Stefanie on March 15th, 2010

I blogged about this for Care2. Check it out: http://www.care2.com/causes/human-rights/blog/dna-testing-and-the-death-penalty/ and vote!

Posted in Blog | no comments



Opening Ceremony of 4th World Congress:
Address at the Palais des Nations

Posted by Elizabeth Zitrin, International Coordinator on March 1st, 2010

Elizabeth Zitrin, DPF's International Coordinator, addressed the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva, on February 24, 2010, as the representative of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

(The video of this address is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYsAdwnS3Sg)

On the Pacific Coast of California, 10,000 kilometers from here, 10 days ago, another thousand people were gathered together to work against the death penalty.

A thousand American lawyers, all representing people - more thousands of people -- facing death at the hands of the government.

A hundred miles from that conference room, up the spectacular Coast Highway, with steep cliffs on the east and wild sea on the west, that same day, the most dangerous ocean waves on the planet reached their peak - 50 foot tall walls of salt water crashing into treacherous rocks and reefs - and the call went out as it does once a year, to the best surfers in the world to travel with just 24 hours' notice to test their talents in what are called "death-defying acts." These athletes were skillful, they were beautiful, they were courageous. But sitting in that conference room I knew that the real death-defying acts were in that room, in the skills and strategy and techniques and tactics.


The death-defying acts are in the courtroom, as lawyers in every retentionist country fight to end the death penalty one precious life at a time.

Acting to defy death. To deny death. Defense lawyers stand individually, one at a time, between their clients and the executioner. But one at a time is just not enough. It's too slow. And too often, we don't win. Abolitionist activists, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, all of you, defy death and save lives not just one person at a time, but one prison at a time, one state at a time, one nation, ten nations, and we will keep on working, defying death, until we have all followed our heroes and become one world without state torture and execution.

I represent my organization, Death Penalty Focus, on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The Coalition is a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. It's a powerful magnifier. With over a hundred members, it takes the power of one and multiplies it a hundred times. Each voice is a hundred times louder. Each one of us has the strength to carry a hundred times the weight. One hundred shining a light on every injustice.

Last June in Sacramento, the capital of California, there was a public hearing about a new proposed lethal injection execution protocol. Over a hundred people testified. Thousands wrote letters. I asked my World Coalition colleagues for support, and letters came from every part of the world, and were read aloud in a public hearing. And as each one was read, as the letter from our member in Togo, which had abolished the death penalty just a few days before, was read in French in the capital of California, I cried, and I knew that our friends were with us, and I knew that the world was watching.

The World Coalition was born out of the 1st World Congress Against the Death Penalty. ECPM lit the fire of both the Congress and the Coalition, and the flame has been tended by many. From the beginning, we have learned from each other. To work together across boundaries, as Amnesty, PRI, FIDH and ACAT do. To develop from a commitment to the poor, a campaign that collected 5 million signatures presented to the Secretary General of the United Nations, as the Community of Sant'Egidio has done. To support the families, as MVFHR does every day.

Still, as smart and skilled and determined as we are, we lawyers and activists, our advocacy is directed to the public and to decision-makers, our partners in government, who have the responsibility of making the laws and enforcing them.

On behalf of the World Coalition I thank all of the official representatives who join us in Congress this week. We thank you for your courage and for your support. You are the leaders in the community of nations, and, as a citizen of a retentionist country, I thank you for showing the way.

The Coalition has been growing every year -- in size and capacity and influence. Our most recent report, "Towards a Universal Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty: Strategies, Arguments and Perspectives" is being published this week and is available during the Congress.

This year, we will leave Europe for our annual membership meeting. The General Assembly of the World Coalition will be in a retentionist country, and it will be the first time an international death penalty abolition organization will meet on US soil. This year, when our World Day focus is on the United States, the World Coalition will meet at the home of Death Penalty Focus, and the birthplace of the United Nations, in San Francisco in June, and I'll be looking for you there.

But for this week, the World Coalition joins ECPM and our Congress partners in welcoming you to Geneva to defy death, to defeat death, for this 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty.

Thank you very much.

Posted in Blog, International | 2 comments



19th Annual Awards Dinner

Posted by on March 1st, 2010

Join us to celebrate and honor 5 outstanding people on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles.

Dinner Co-Chairs: Harry Belafonte, Shelley Fabares, Mike Farrell, Stanley & Betty Sheinbaum, Loretta Swit and Sue & Richard Wollack.

Honorees:

    * Alec Baldwin: Justice in the Arts Award. Alec Baldwin is an Emmy Award Winning Actor and is an Academy Award Nominee.

    * Paul Haggis: The Mario Cuomo Acts of Courage Award. Paul Haggis is an Academy Award winning writer and director.

    * Sherry & Leo Frumkin: The Rose Elizabeth Bird Commitment to Justice Award. Sherry and Leo Frumkin are social justice activists.

    * Richard Dieter: 2010 Abolition Award. Richard Dieter is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, and has been since 1992.

    * Sister Suzanne Jabro, CSJ: the Norman Felton and Denise Aubuchon Humanitarian Award. Sister Suzanne Jabro is a hero of the Restorative Justice Movement.


For more information, including how to purchase ads, tables and tickets, please contact Michael Teta Associates at 818-906-0240 or dpf@mtaevents.com. 

Posted in Blog | no comments



Johnny Depp advocates for the West Memphis 3

Posted by Stefanie on March 1st, 2010

On Saturday, 48 Hours Mystery featured a program on the West Memphis 3.  Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, known as the West Memphis 3, are serving prison terms in Arkansas for murders they most likely did not commit. Echols is on death row.  Here's a brief case overview

It is great to see Johnny Depp getting involved in this case. He can bring much needed attention to this injustice.  


Watch CBS News Videos Online



DPF Opens the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty

Posted by Elizabeth Zitrin, International Coordinator, on February 26th, 2010

The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room of the Palais des Nations at the UN headquarters in Geneva is a grand place with a stunning ceiling sculpture commissioned by Spain.

On Wednesday, February 24, the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty opening in this grand chamber with speeches by, among other dignitaries, Enzo Scotti, Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Italy; Gry Larsen, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs for Norway; Sergei Ordzhonikidze, Director-General of the United Nations in Geneva; José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Prime Minister of Spain and the incredible Robert Badinter, French Senator, Minister of Justice from 1981 to 1986, and author of the French abolitionist law.

In that lofty company, I had the honor of representing not only Death Penalty Focus and the US abolition movement, but the entire World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

During the three days at the International Conference Center in Geneva, close to 2000 abolitionists from around the world gathered to discuss abolition. I'll report to you about the Congress and about the US participants, including Sister Helen Prejean.

Stay tuned!

Elizabeth Zitrin is DPF's International Outreach and Communications Coordinator




Why stretch and manipulate the truth?

Posted by Mike Farrell, DPF President on February 26th, 2010
Mike Farrell
Mike Farrell, President of Death Penalty Focus

Friday's Opinion piece by Gary Lieberstein and John Poyner in the San Jose Mercury News contains so many factual inaccuracies and politically inspired half-truths that I'm surprised they attached their names.

The tired-- and soundly demolished-- idea that state killing is a deterrent to violent crime only maintains currency because people who should know better -- and probably do -- continue to repeat it. They do so, it's clear, because all the other excuses for supporting capital punishment have been exposed as baseless.

Purporting to state "facts," Lieberstein and Poyner misstate and
twist them embarrassingly. Citing two infamous cases ¬ one based
solely on circumstantial evidence that made the retired "Hanging
Judge" of Orange County volunteer to testify for the defense ¬ they
claim that "Prosecutors have reserved the death penalty for the worst
crimes." They know better. California's death penalty law allows for
33 separately enumerated "special circumstances," not the 22 they
claim, and their range allows almost any murder to qualify for death
if an ambitious prosecutor feels it personally advantageous.

The statistics they cite, while not correct, indict their own thesis.
If the small percentage of death charges they claim are responsible
for the waste of $135 million in California's taxes every year ¬ as
reported by our state's Commission on the Fair Administration of
Justice
-- then over 95% of those convicted of murder serve out their
time in our state's prisons, clearly punished, but at a fraction of
the cost to the people.

They selectively cite one of two or three studies, all of which have
been soundly denounced by criminologists and statisticians, claiming
that killing people actually deters murders. It must be embarrassing,
even for these authors, to go through the gymnastics necessary to find
and reproduce a repudiated report while knowing that so many experts
have trashed it.

The assertion that great care is taken by their colleagues before
charging and prosecuting for death, while certainly the least one
might expect, seems to be contradicted by the fact that over 40% of
California's capital convictions are overturned on appeal. Their
claim that "a death verdict must be unanimous" conveniently ignores
the fact that no potential juror who opposes or has questions about
the appropriateness or efficacy of capital punishment is allowed to
sit on a capital case.

The statement that "There has never been a single finding of
prosecutorial abuse-- including an improper motive such as race, bias
or vindictiveness -- in the history of California's death penalty," is
astonishing -- and false. One need look only at the case of Thomas
Thompson
, after whose execution Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th
Circuit Court of Appeals referred to him as "the first person in the
nation ever to be executed on the basis of a trial that an unrefuted
decision of a United States Court of Appeals had held to be
unconstitutional."

As to the question of cost, the authors try valiantly to skirt the
issue by attempting to cast blame on an overwhelmed and under-funded
defense bar with a juicy quote from a pro-death organization. The
cost of death penalty politics, which is what their opinion piece
reeks of, is outrageous. Taxpayers in California, as is the case in
the 34 other death-dealing states in our country, are paying two to
three times as much for every death case as they do for one that seeks
life in prison without possibility of parole. This fact was one of
the determinants in the recent decisions of New Jersey and New Mexico
to take state killing off the books. The simple expedient of
eliminating the death penalty in California would save us $1 billion
in the next five years -- this in a state with a $20 billion budget
deficit.

Lieberstein and Poyner, whose job gives them the power to decide which
penalty to seek while capital punishment remains on the books, should
put away empty, tired and false clichés like the threat of "increased
violence" and truly consider the needs of the people. Their defense
of such an outdated, ineffective, inefficient, racist and hugely
expensive process demeans those they claim to serve.





New Books on the Death Penalty

Posted by Stefanie on February 24th, 2010

David Dow's new book, The Autobiography of an Execution, has been reviewed by the New York Times, TIME, Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times and Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air did a long interview with him.  I'm not sure why this book in particular has struck a nerve with so many, but I'm a firm believer that any book, essay or interview than can shed some light on the death penalty is a good thing. And there is doubt that Dow has worked in the trenches and has much first-hand experience to share.

Other books that have been released recently include: Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer by Andrea D. Lyon, which was recently reviewed in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Last Lawyer by John Temple reviewed by IndyWeek, Life and Death Matters by Robert Baldwin, The Road to Abolition?: The Future of Capital Punishment in the United States by Austin Sarat and Jr and Charles Ogletree and That Bird Has My Wings by death row prisoner Jarvis Jay Masters.

All of these books are available for purchase on our website.

Posted in Blog, Resources | no comments



A Sad Commentary on Our State's Priorities

Posted by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on February 22nd, 2010
www.californiacrimevictims.org

In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Prisons can’t afford to cut rehabilitation funds,” Harriet Salarno, President of Crime Victims United, and Assemblyman Ted Lieu, D-Torrance (Los Angeles County) clearly show the disastrous affect budget cuts to rehabilitation programs will have on California’s public safety.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plans to cut $250 million of its $600 million rehabilitation program and to lay off 600 to 900 educational and vocational prison instructors.   Without rehabilitation programs, more inmates are likely to re-offend, creating even more crimes and even more victims.  California already has a 70 percent recidivism rate.  The department should be working towards improving rehabilitation programs rather than making cuts to them.

In California’s current economic climate, we must assess the fiscal and societal impact of every policy and reevaluate our priorities.  The fact is that, while we cut the rehabilitation programs that can actually prevent future crimes, we continue to spend millions of dollars each year on a completely broken and ineffectual death penalty system.  If we replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, we would save one billion dollars over the next five years.  That’s one billion dollars that could be spent, not only, on rehabilitation for inmates, but also on violence prevention, intervention for at-risk youth, state crime labs, and DNA testing – all of which actually make our communities safer.

“It's sad commentary on our state's priorities when we callously place money above people's lives,” Salarno and Lieu say.  

It’s also a sad commentary on our state’s priorities when we misuse the limited public safety resources we do have.  

The death penalty is a disservice to victims and to our communities.  It’s time to replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment.

Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | 1 comments



DPF's Inland Valley Chapter sponsors Essay Contest for students

Posted by Stefanie on February 19th, 2010

The Inland Valley Chapter of Death Penalty focus is sponsoring an Essay Contest for students. The deadline to enter is April 16, 2010 and cash prizes will be awarded for the winning essays.

The contest rules and guidelines are available here, and you can also visit the Chapter's Facebook page more more info.

Essays should explore the ways our state might justify changing the sentence of 700 men and women currently on death row to life without parole. Essays will be judged for clarity of writing, research, creativity, uniqueness of approach, persuasive arguments and
adherence to rules and deadlines.

For more info, contact Sharyn Webb at swebb1937@yahoo.com

Posted in Blog, Resources | no comments



A Not So Smart Solution

Posted by Lance Lindsey on February 17th, 2010
California State Senator Tom Harman

State Senator Tom Harman (R-Orange County) is attempting to fast-track executions in California as well as change how lethal injections are administered, providing a so-called "smart and simple solution" to concerns about whether or not poisoning prisoners to death is cruel and unusual punishment.

Harman's ludicrous bills allow the state to hire more appellate lawyers but provide no funding to do so. They also redirect cases to the already overburdened Court of Appeals at a time of extreme fiscal crisis that consequently includes a serious lack of resources for genuine public safety initiatives. By introducing such out-of-touch legislation, Harman ignores the current preference of his constituents for permanent imprisonment over state-sanctioned homicide.

Most obscene is his proposal for changing the method of killing prisoners in our state. Acting as if the barbaric ritual of medicalized killing is not cruel and unusual in itself, he ignores the majority of the world's nations and every other Western democracy, and lays claim to a "smart" way to kill by advocating for a single overdose of barbiturates.

In a cheap attempt to co-opt San Francisco DA Kamala Harris's smart on crime campaign, Harman suggests that one method to kill prisoners is smarter - meaning a political way to subvert constitutional, moral and human rights standards - than another equally medieval method. This disgusting ploy is not only shameful but wrong.

Whether execution teams use one poisonous drug or three; shoot prisoners in the back of the head; hang, behead, or stone them, there's nothing "smart" about the way we and other killing states like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Viet Nam take a life; the slow, methodical, ritualized killing of the less than 2 percent of those who commit homicide in the US is always cruel and unusual.

As Justice John Paul Stevens recently put it, "the pointless and needless extinction of life" serves no real "discernible social or public purpose… A penalty with such negligible returns to the state (is a) patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment."

Senator Harman's "simple and smart" is actually simplistic and stupid. Such so-called solutions to the complex problem of violent crime offered up by cynical and disingenuous politicians may serve them politically, but they do real harm to the hopes of Californians who would prefer an investment in meaningful solutions that insure public safety and criminal justice.

Senator Harman's simplistic embrace of a "single lethal dose of anesthesia " as a means for our state to kill a human being might have been less enthusiastic if he'd taken the time to look into its potential "complications" by paying a visit to the website of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

International Task Force: "….Overdoses of barbiturates are known to cause vomiting as a person begins to lose consciousness. The patient then inhales the vomit. In other cases, panic, feelings of terror and assaultive behavior can occur from the drug-induced confusion…."

Senator Harman : "According to medical experts this procedure removes any risk of the inmate experiencing pain or suffering. The change will eliminate cruel or unusual punishment concerns..."

Posted in Blog | 2 comments



Even Texas is looking at the staggering cost of the death penalty

Posted by Stefanie on February 12th, 2010

Check out this MSNBC Nightly News segment on why even Texas is turning away from the death penalty for financial reasons.  Texas only had 9 new death sentences in 2009, compared to 29 in California. 

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news,