There's a new documentary in the works, and it come from the same folks that brought us One For Ten, the documentary series that explored issues that lead to innocent people getting sentenced to death.
According to the filmmakers, "The Penalty is a 90-minute film that seeks to lift the lid on the human cost of the death penalty. From the award-winning team behind One For Ten the
film pulls back the curtain on the people who are touched by capital
punishment every day, but who are often far from death row. We follow
the tentacles of the death penalty as they wrap their way around
lawyers, innocent men, victims' families and the political landscape."
Here is the trailer for the film so far:
Needless to say, this is an important documentary that will raise awareness about the major topics in the debate over the lingering existence of capital punishment in the 21st century US.
For this reason we're endorsing this project and hoping that you'll consider making a donation if you think it's as important as we do. The filmmakers are currently half-way through their filming process, but they need your help to gather the final footage so that they can order assemble and distribute it. Since they've already received a lot of interest from major distributors, your support will help ensure that people all around the US (and indeed the world) know what's at stake as states continue to prop up their crumbling execution systems.
The Kickstarter link is here. As we said earlier, any support goes a long way. But also make sure to check out the online fundraiser because it offers exclusive perks to donors who invest in the project at this crucial stage.
We recently had the opportunity to help raise funds for The Penalty at an event right around the corner from our headquarters in San Francisco. We got to hear from Nancy Mullane, the intrepid journalist behind Life of the Law who was recently granted access to California's death row (a truly rare occurrence), and SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has led the charge in San Francisco seeking to prioritize policies prevent crime in the first place rather than mindlessly dumping tax money into an endless cycle of incarceration.
Check out some photos from the event:
Director Will Francome and Producer Lara Shacham preparing for the event.
SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi speaking.
Life of the Law's Nancy Mullane, deep in thought.
Someone lending his support to the film, with DPF's David Crawford speaking with a guest in the background.
A Texas death row inmate named Scott Panetti is convinced that he is imprisoned for preaching the gospel and carrying out God's plan in defiance of a vast satanic conspiracy.
It is unconstitutional to execute prisoners who have no grasp on reality or the reasons for their convictions. Nevertheless, the sate is planning to strap him to a table and inject him with chemicals until an overdose occurs on December 3.
This case has been infamous to legal and mental health professionals for decades. According the Texas Defender Service:
While representing himself at trial in 1995, Mr. Panetti sought over 200
subpoenas, including ones for John F. Kennedy, the Pope, and Jesus
Christ. He wore a TV-Western cowboy costume and a purple bandana. Mr. Panetti’s statements in court, at both the guilt and sentencing
phase, were bizarre and incomprehensible. He took the witnesses stand
and testified about his own life in excessive and irrelevant detail. ...
Mr. Panetti has a fixed delusion that his execution is being
orchestrated by Satan, working through the State of Texas, to put an end
to his preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If his execution date is not withdrawn, he will go to the execution
chamber convinced that he is being put to death for preaching the
Gospels, not for the murder of his wife’s parents, and the retributive
goal of capital punishment will not be served.
And the National Alliance on Mental Illness's Director for Policy and Legal Affairs, Ron Honberg, wrote that:
Ultimately, Texas should not be permitted to execute Scott Panetti
without answering the central question the lower courts have
sidestepped: How can a person with a severe mental illness who genuinely
believes that Satan, conspiring with the state government, is seeking
to execute him for preaching the Gospel nonetheless possess a rational
understanding of the link between his crime and his punishment?
Panetti's trial was an abomination. His execution, if the U.S. Supreme Court does not stop it, would be a miserable spectacle.
DPF President Mike Farrell has been working on a new project in Georgia for the last few weeks. While there, he decided to stop by the Carter Center and catch up with the former president of the United States.
As you might know, Jimmy Carter signed the law authorizing Georgia's "modern" death penalty system in 1973 while serving as the state's governor. This was the same statute that went before the Supreme Court in 1976 in the case Gregg v. Georgia, wherein the national moratorium on executions was lifted.
The moratorium was lifted because some of the justices thought that the Georgia law went far enough in addressing the arbitrariness and inconsistency that had made the previous system unconstitutional. However, as Carter told the Guardian, “The only consistency today is that the people who are executed are
almost always poor, from a racial minority or mentally deficient. In America today, if you have a good attorney you
can avoid the death penalty; if you are white you can avoid it; if your
victim was a racial minority you can avoid it. But if you are very poor
or mentally deficient, or the victim is white, that’s the way you get
sentenced to death.”
Reflecting on this point and his role in the creation of the current death penalty system, Carter told the audience at last year's national death penalty symposium that “If I had to do that over again I would certainly be much more forceful
in taking actions what would have prohibited the death penalty. In complete
honesty, when I was governor I was not nearly as concerned
about the unfairness of the application of the death penalty as I am
now. I know much more now. I was looking at it from a much more
parochial point of view – I didn’t see the injustice of it as I do now.”
It's been about a year since the Carter Center and the American Bar Association held the symposium, but the videos and topics covered are still crucial to the debate about the future of executions in the US. Here is a video that includes Carter's opening remarks (which start around 20 minutes in). There are plenty more videos from the event on the ABA's website too.
Death Penalty Focus and Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent hosted their first annual Innocence Day as a part of the first ever Death Penalty Focus Week.
The event featured several panelists who were incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Not only did the speakers recount their ordeals, they explained what went wrong in each of their cases, be it mistaken eyewitness identification, false testimony, or full-fledged misconduct from police and prosecutors.
From left to right, the panelists included:
Nick Yarris, who spent 21 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit because DNA testing was not available at the time of his trial. Nick's story is both heart-wrenching and inspirational. You can read all about it in his book, 7 Days to Live.
Gloria Killian, who spent 16 years in prison for a crime she
didn't commit, because the perpetrators tried to frame her in order to cover up
the involvement of a co-conspirator and in order to seek reduced sentences from
the prosecutors. All the while, the prosecutors hid these details from Gloria's attorney, including a letter by the gunman that stated
"I lied my ass off for you people." Since her exoneration, Gloria has
gone on to become the executive director of the Action Committee for Women in Prison.
Obie Anthony, who spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit because a witness lied to the jury at his trial. Obie was exonerated due to the tireless efforts of the Loyola Project for the Innocent and he frequently helps DPF as a Justice Advocate.
Kash Register, who spent an astounding 34 years in prison for a murder he had nothing to do with, because a witness said he somewhat resembled the real perpetrator and because prosecutors hid evidence that cast doubt on his involvement. Kash was also exonerated, less than one year ago, due to the efforts of the Loyola Project for the Innocent.
Ronnie Sandoval, the mother of Arthur Carmona, who spent 3 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit because police investigators dressed him in the outfit of another suspect in order to secure a positive witness identification, and because his lawyer never thought to question this at his trial. Arthur was tragically killed just a few years after his exoneration. Ronnie honors her son's memory by continuing to tell his story.
The event gathered considerable attention, both from the public and the press. The Robinson Courtroom, a training ground for Loyola law students, drew such a crowd that people stood in the aisles and watched from the doorways once all of the seats were taken. Reporters NBC4-Los Angeles also showed up to cover the event. Their coverage features Nick, Nick Obie, and Kash:
Loyola Law School's Project for the
Innocent celebrated "Innocence Day" in Los Angeles by bringing together a
group of exonerated men and women to share their stories.
Obie Anthony, convicted in 1994 for a murder at a brothel in South LA, was given a sentence of life without parole.
Kash Register spent 34 years and seven months in prison for a murder he didn't commit. He was just released last November.
Nick Yarris spent 23 years in solitary confinement for rape and murder - neither of which he committed.
Three examples, the Project says, shows a broken judicial system in drastic need of help.
Law Professor Laurie Levenson says students and staff work together on
multiple cases that come to their attention where evidence or testimony
comes into question.
after a thorough investigation of the case a true claim of innocence is
provable, students draft a habeas petition so the case can be
unbelievable that this type of injustice can occur," says Levenson. "We
have prosecutors who are not turning over evidence. We rely on
so-called eyewitness IDs that are no good. We have jailhouse snitches.
But mainly what we have are people that are too eager to convict."
for some, prosecutors who may have lied about evidence or kept key
information on cases away from juries, continue to prosecute.
the case for Obie Anthony, who says the prosecutor who made a deal with
a pimp to convict him still works for the Los Angeles County District
And yet Anthony holds very little anger.
"Anger keeps you in prison," says Anthony. "They've already taken 17 years of my life."
Eyewitness testimony has long been argued as unreliable. It's what put Anthony in prison.
was the last time somebody said to you that you look like someone else,
or that you remind them of this person. It was just that easy that I
found myself in the penitentiary with life without the possibility of
parole," Anthony says.
Kash Register says he couldn't help but break down in tears during the initial trial that convicted him.
"I don't care who you are. They put you in that seat right there. They point you out. Everybody gonna look the same," he says.
Nick Yarris says he was stopped by Philadelphia police in the early 1980s while he was on a methamphetamine high.
he resisted arrest, he says the officer fired a shot into the ground,
threw him in the back of his cruiser and then made a "shots fired" call
asking for back-up.
Yarris was later convicted for the rape and murder of a woman four days before the scuffle with police.
I did ask to be executed for a crime I didn't commit," Yarris says,
looking back to 2003 after having been in solitary confinement for 23
A federal judge considered his plea and used DNA tests to later free him.
who shared their stories with the Project for the Innocents say they
feel a mission to their lives now, to continue to share their stories.
And they thanked the effort of the students and staff at Loyola for helping to free them.
"Your efforts, for bringing me home, will not go in vain," says Anthony. "I will make you proud."
Friday, October 10, marks the 12th Annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. This year's theme is "Care, Don't Kill: Mental Disorder Is Never a Crime."
It may come as a shock, but California has the single largest death row in the Western Hemisphere. With 750 condemned prisoners and a new, court-ordered psychiatric hospital constructed just this year, it's important to recognize the the significance of this World Day for California, and the state's role in the lingering existence of the death penalty in the US and around the world.
To commemorate this year's event, and our first ever Death Penalty Focus Week, we've assembled a short list of relevant articles about the issue of mental health in terms of our movement to finally put an end to executions.
Parents of Murdered Daughter Speak Out Against the Death Penalty
Amanda and Nick Wilcox
As a family, we have always been opposed to the Death Penalty. That
belief, however, was theoretical; we never dreamed that our family
would be touched by violent crime.
On January 10, 2001, our only daughter, Laura, was murdered while home
on winter break from college. Laura was filling in as a receptionist at
the Nevada County Behavioral Health clinic when a mentally ill client
opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun and shot Laura four times,
killing her instantly. When the rampage at the clinic and at a nearby
restaurant ended, three people lay dead, three were severely injured, a
community was shaken, and the world was diminished by the loss of an
incredible young woman.
had extraordinary capabilities, kindness, and spirit. She was an
outstanding student, graduating as high school valedictorian and was at
the time of her death a college sophomore, and in the midst of her
campaign for the student body presidency. Laura was extremely
organized, disciplined and motivated. Couple these traits with her
positive energy and she was a natural leader. At age nineteen, Laura
was already living a life full of service; she wanted to make a
positive difference in the world…she had unlimited possibilities and
the brightest of prospects. Laura was preparing to dedicate herself to
a life of social service, social justice, and world peace through the
practice of respect, non-violence and social equality. Her life was
witness to her beliefs, as she touched and inspired the lives of those
As Quakers, our family, including Laura, had always been opposed to the
death penalty. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, while still
in disbelief and shock, we leaned on our long-held beliefs; we remain
opposed to the death penalty. As we continued our journey as grieving
parents and endured the criminal and civil proceedings, we experienced
a wide range of emotions but never wavered in our opposition to the
death penalty. In fact, our feelings against the death penalty have
In the days after Laura was killed, we were searching to find sense and
meaning. It was incomprehensible that someone as good and innocent as
our dear Laura could be killed by an act of violence. Comments such as
“Fry the Bastard” or “I hope he gets what he deserves” were loudly
expressed in our community, but did not comfort us. We were in need of
a restored faith in the goodness of people. The support, care, and
concern of friends and strangers warmed our hearts and rekindled our
The death penalty is often justified in the name of the victim’s
families. Advocates claim that it will bring justice and closure.
However, true justice is something we can never achieve, as we can
never have our daughter back. In our view, the lengthy process of
trials, appeals and anticipated execution would only impede coming to
terms with our horrible loss. If closure means healing, that healing
must come from within, not from the fate of the murderer.
We believe the man who killed our daughter must be held fully
accountable. He cannot be trusted to be free in society again without
continuing supervision. However, further feelings of him would give him
a hold on our life that we do not wish to grant. We have no control
over what happened to our daughter but we can choose how we respond. We
know what Laura would want. We lost our daughter and life as we knew
it, we do not intend to lose our values too.
We understand that victims who oppose the death penalty are frequently
marginalized and ignored by the court, thereby perpetuating the harm.
In our case, we were fortunate to meet with the District Attorney
regarding our feelings and were assured that the death penalty would
not be sought even though the special circumstances of multiple and
premeditated murder might have applied. Our daughter’s killer was found
to be not guilty by reason of insanity, and committed to a state mental
hospital. We agree completely with this outcome.
From a purely analytical perspective, the death penalty might be
justifiable if it deterred crime and saved lives, or if it resulted in
a reduction in State costs. Studies have shown that it does neither of
these things. The death penalty, therefore, can only be viewed as an
institutional expression of revenge and retribution. Rather than
focusing on the offender, it must be asked what the death penalty says
about us as a society. Our nation cannot afford the death penalty; the
cost, both morally and financially, is too high. We say, not in our
The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity
by Charles Ogletree
I have wondered countless times over the past
30 years whether I would live to see the end of the death penalty in the
United States. I now know that day will come, and I believe that the
current Supreme Court will be its architect.
In its ruling in Hall v. Florida in
May, the court — with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the helm — reminded
us that the core value animating the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and
unusual punishments clause is the preservation of human dignity against the affront of unnecessarily harsh punishment. Hall,
which prohibited a rigid test in use in Florida for gauging whether a
defendant is intellectually disabled, was the most recent in a series of
opinions in which the court has juxtaposed retribution — the idea of
vengeance for a wrongdoing, which serves as the chief justification for
the death penalty — with a recognition of our hopelessly complex and
fallible human nature.
What was important about Hall
is the way Kennedy described the logic behind exempting intellectually
disabled individuals from execution: “to impose the harshest of
punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her
inherent dignity as a human being” because the “diminished capacity of
the intellectually disabled lessens moral culpability and hence the
retributive value of the punishment.” Though the court previously barred
imposition of the death penalty upon intellectually disabled people, as
well as juvenile offenders, Hall marked the first time that it
went so far as to claim that imposing the death penalty upon offenders
with these kinds of functional impairments serves “no legitimate
is why I see an end coming to the death penalty in this country. The
overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the
court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe
functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the
individuals who populate the nation’s death rows. A new study
by Robert J. Smith, Sophie Cull and Zoë Robinson, published in Hastings
Law Journal, of the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012
and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered
from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits.
of the offenders had intellectual disabilities, borderline intellectual
function or traumatic brain injuries, a similarly debilitating
impairment. For example, the Texas Department of Corrections determined
that Elroy Chester had an IQ of 69. He attended special education
classes throughout school and never functioned at a higher level than
third grade. The state had previously enrolled Chester into its Mentally
Retarded Offenders Program. Despite these findings, Texas executed him on June 12, 2013.
than half of the 100 had a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia,
post-traumatic stress disorder or psychosis. For example, for more than
40 years, Florida’s own psychiatrists found that John Ferguson suffered
from severe mental illness. Ferguson had a fixed delusion that he was
the “Prince of God” who could not be killed and would rise up after his
execution and fight alongside Jesus to save the United States from a
communist plot. When Ferguson was executed
on Aug. 5, 2013, his last words were: “I just want everyone to know
that I am the Prince of God and I will rise again.” A Florida court had
called Mr. Ferguson’s delusions “normal Christian beliefs.”
other executed offenders endured unspeakable abuse as children.
Consider Daniel Cook, whose mother drank alcohol and abused drugs while
she was pregnant with him. His mother and grandparents molested him as a
young child, and his father physically abused him by, for example,
lighting a cigarette and using it to burn Daniel’s genitals. Eventually
the state placed Daniel in foster care, but the abuse didn’t stop. A
foster parent chained him nude to a bed and raped him while other adults
watched from the next room through a one-way mirror. The prosecutor
responsible for Cook’s death sentence stood behind him during the
clemency process, telling authorities that he would have taken the death
penalty off of the table had he known of his torturous childhood.
Arizona refused to commute Cook’s sentence, however, and he died by lethal injection on Aug. 8, 2012.
the execution of Elroy Chester, John Ferguson, Daniel Cook and many
more like them illustrates, barring the death penalty for intellectually
disabled and juvenile offenders did not solve the death penalty’s
dignity problem. Rather, those cases gave us cause to look more closely
at the people whom we execute. And when you look closely, what you find
is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human
dignity are not compatible.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is a professor at Harvard Law School.
San Quentin plans psychiatric hospital for death row inmates
By Paige St. John
Under court pressure to improve psychiatric care for deeply disturbed
death row inmates, state officials are moving quickly to open a 40-bed
hospital at San Quentin prison to house them.
monitor of mental health care in California's prison system reported to
judges Tuesday that about three dozen men on death row are so mentally
ill that they require inpatient care, with 24-hour nursing.
now, they are being treated in their cells, but the state plans to have
a hospital setting ready for them by November, according to documents
filed Tuesday in federal court.
The plan calls for taking over and
retrofitting most of a new medical unit recently built at the prison. A
spokeswoman for the court's prison medical office said San Quentin
officials plan to use medical facilities at other prisons if a shortage
of beds arises as a result.
urgency of psychiatric treatment for the mentally ill prisoners demands
swift action, the court's monitor, Matthew Lopes, said in court papers.
He said an agreement to provide the psychiatric wing at San Quentin was
made possible by collaborative effort among the state, courts and
In December, after weeks of courtroom
testimony on the treatment of about 10 unidentified death row prisoners,
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ordered the state to provide
condemned inmates access to inpatient psychiatric care. The court files
show negotiations and planning began almost immediately.
also ordered mental health screenings of all 720 condemned men at San
Quentin. Those evaluations concluded in late May with the identification
of 37 condemned men for admission to the psychiatric unit. Lopes'
report notes that San Quentin is bound to need room for additional
Twenty female prisoners who are sentenced to die and housed elsewhere are not covered by Karlton's order.
Some analysts see irony in providing for the long-term mental health of those sentenced to die.
is the only place on Earth where you'd be talking about building a
psychiatric hospital for condemned prisoners," said Berkeley law
professor Franklin Zimring, who has written about the U.S. capital
punishment system. "It is a measure of American greatness and American
silliness at the same time."
courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people who are
not aware of what is happening to them. "We are curing them to make
them executable," Zimring said.
But San Francisco prisoners'
rights lawyer Michael Bien, who argued the San Quentin case in court
last fall, regards adequate psychiatric care as a fundamental right.
reality is these guys are going to live in this place for a long time,
and you need to see they get the care they need," Bien said.
with the nation's largest death row, has not killed a prisoner since
2006. Later that year, state executions were stayed when condemned
inmate Michael Morales challenged the lethal injection procedures.
The state attempted to adopt new protocols involving different drugs in 2010, but they remain under legal challenge.
the interim, 44 inmates have died of age, disease, drug overdose or
suicide, with the latter raising concerns about psychiatric care on
death row. One of those who committed suicide was Justin Helzer, who
helped his brother kill five people and dump their dismembered bodies
into a Sacramento river in 2000.
According to last year's
testimony, Helzer was found by San Quentin doctors to be delusional and
schizophrenic and often refused medication. In 2010, he blinded himself
by jabbing pens through the sockets of his eyes. In 2013, he made a
noose out of his bed sheet and hanged himself in his cell.
officials had testified that psychiatric care for death row inmates was
limited. Those sent to a psychiatric hospital within another state
prison were quarantined from the rest of the population, limiting
San Quentin had set up unlicensed beds, providing the
equivalent of outpatient treatment within a corner of its medical
building. Karlton found both provisions inadequate.
psychiatric hospitals within men's prisons, the one at San Quentin will
be run by the corrections department and not the Department of State
Gov. Jerry Brown's administration has not sought
legislative approval for the San Quentin project. Finance Department
spokesman H.D. Palmer said the state plans to use savings in prison
mental health services elsewhere in the state to run the unit.
12th World Day Against the Death Penalty: Mental Health
On 10 October 2014, the 12th World Day Against the Death Penalty is
drawing attention to people with mental health problems who are at risk
of a death sentence or execution. While opposing the death
penalty absolutely, abolitionists are also committed to see existing
international human rights standards implemented. Among these is the
requirement that persons with mental illness or intellectual
disabilities should not face the death penalty.
Prisons are becoming the mental institutions of the 21st century.
This reflects, at least in part, the failure of societies to provide
adequate care and support to people with mental illness and intellectual
disabilities. It is important to stress that people with mental
disorders do not, in general, pose a higher risk of violence than the
general population although there is considerable evidence that they are
at greater than average risk of becoming victims of violence. There
are, however, numerous cases of people who were in need of mental health
care that they did not receive who then went on to commit acts of
What needs to be done
A number of actions by governments are needed to address the risk that
persons with mental and intellectual disabilities will be sent to death
row and possibly executed.
- Immediate implementation of existing standards
barring the imposition of death sentences or executions on those with
intellectual disabilities and those who are seriously mentally ill. The
practice of executing such persons should cease immediately. Factsheet for Judges
- Renewed efforts to (i) ensure that all states have
laws that embed international protections in their domestic legislation;
(ii) extend protection to those with serious mental illness not covered
by existing proscriptions against executing persons affected by
“insanity”. Factsheet for Parliamentarians
- Ensure that adequate mental health care is available
for defendants in capital cases in which mental or intellectual
disabilities are claimed as a factor. Factsheet for Lawyers
- Work towards the reduction of stigma against persons
with mental or intellectual disabilities, particularly where media
reports promote inaccurate public beliefs about risks posed by such
persons. Factsheet for Journalists
To know more about the death penalty...
... all over the world: read the Facts & figures (download on right)
... and mental health: read the leaflet and the detailed factsheet (download on right)
Take action to stop crime, not lives:
1. Organize a public debate and a movie screening with exonerees,
murder victim’s families, experts, to raise awareness on the reality of
the death penalty
2. Organize an art exhibition (photo, drawings, posters) or a theatre performance from Dead Man Walking to Victor Hugo
3. Organize a demonstration, a sit-in, a ‘die-in,’ a flash mob
4. Join the events prepared for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide
5. Support urgent appeals and take part in social media action in the lead up to 10 October
6. Write to a prisoner on death row
7. Donate to the World Coalition against the Death Penalty or another group working to end the death penalty.
8. Join an abolitionist organization
9. Mobilize the media to raise awareness on the issue of the death penalty
10. Participate in “Cities Against the Death Penalty/Cities for Life” on November 30, 2014
Call for initiatives
> On 10 October 2014, take action against the death penalty!
Join hundreds of initiatives organized worldwide
> Wherever you are
In Africa, America, Asia, Oceania or Europe
> Whoever you are
NGOS, teachers, lawyers, local representatives, parliamentarians, artists, reporters, religious leaders, citizens
> Whatever your plans are
Debates, concerts, press conferences, demonstrations, petitions, educational and cultural activities...
Support for the death penalty in California is at the lowest point in half a century. And not only that – a new Field poll shows that this level of support is falling rapidly.
In 2011, support for the death penalty was at 68%. Yet in just 3 years it has tumbled by 13% to a just a small majority. What’s even more striking is that support has fallen as much in the last 3 years as it has in the last 30. And when you consider that people generally favor alternatives to executions—such as life in prison without the possibility of parole, where inmates have to work and pay restitution to victims’ families—even those who might support the death penalty in principle are turning away from it in practice.
The tide is turning and today’s news offers more proof that Californians are quickly moving in the right direction on this issue. In fact, I am one of those very Californians.
As the former District Attorney of Los Angeles County, a county that sends more people to death row than the entire state of Texas, I know that the death penalty is deeply emotional, highly divisive, and very political. However, both sides of the death penalty debate can agree on one thing: California’s death penalty system is broken beyond repair.
In my 32 years with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, including eight years as the county’s elected District Attorney, I prosecuted the most egregious murder cases to the fullest. I sent many people to death row, believing that I had served the people of Los Angeles—that I had sought justice.
Fast forward to present day—nearly 15 years later—I view the death penalty in a different light. I know that the death penalty is a costly charade that doesn’t make us any safer or deter crime. What’s more, it will always carry with it one fatal risk: executing an innocent person.
The writing is on the wall: the death penalty is quickly losing support among Californians and it is high time we replace it. We can’t go on with a system that is riddled with insurmountable practical and legal problems and fails to deliver on the promise of swift justice.
The only workable solution is to replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. That’s justice that works for everyone.
On August 27, the producers invited DPF's President, Mike Farrell, along with Ron Keine (a death row exoneree) and Judge Alex Kozinski to discuss recent, troubling developments in the administration of the death penalty.
You can listen using SoundCloud by clicking below. You can also download the episode by searching for Lawyer 2 Lawyer in iTunes or your favorite podcast app.
Mike and Ron provided many strong arguments for making executions a thing of the past. One of the best moments was when Mike responded to Judge Kozinski's plea not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" by ending the death penalty:
The compromise that we have made, in order to
satisfy the Judge Kozinskis of this world that say we must execute
certain people because they don’t deserve to live, is that we have a
system that entraps the Ron Keines of this world and kills the Cameron
Todd Willinghams of this world. If you want to have that compromise,
let’s take the half dozen people that Judge Kozinski says don’t deserve
to live, and put them in a very specialized institution where then you
can determine whether or not it’s possible that those people can be
treated and reformed. If not, you can keep them there for the rest of
their natural life, a punishment that is as egregious as one can imagine
and that does not require that we stoop to the level of the murderer and
take a life.
August 13 marked 50 years--half a century--since the UK stopped executing prisoners. DPF commemorated this anniversary by launching a project called "50 Years Without Death," creating a new educational website, collecting your perspectives, creating graphics to help you spread the word and change the conversation, and placing two pieces in the Huffington Post, and by featuring DPF's President, Mike Farrell, DPF's Executive Director, Matt Cherry, on HuffPost Live. Check out all of these resources, and submit a perspective if you want too (it not too late!)
50 Years Without Death Website
You can check out DPF's new educational website, "50 Years Without Death," by visiting uk50.org. There you will find sections on
A new infographic about the decline and fall of capital punishment in the entire Western world--except the United States.
Perspectives from famous Britons on the meaning of half a century without executions.
And ways to get involved, spread the word, and change the conversation.
One of the most interesting features of uk50.org is the section featuring people's perspectives about the fact that it's 50 years since the UK stopped executing prisoners. You can even submit your own perspective.
Jeremy Irons is an award-winning stage and film actor, in addition to
being an advocate for human rights with Amnesty international.
Ways to Get Involved
While there are plenty of ways to get involved with DPF and the movement to end capital punishment, for this event we created a meme so that you could share it on social media and help change the conversation about the death penalty. It's still active, so go ahead and share it if you haven't yet.
Mike and Matt in the Huffington Post
DPF's President, Mike Farrell, and its Executive Director, Matt Cherry, both published pieces reflecting on the significance of the anniversary in the Huffington Post.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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!
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.