A report released today by the Pew Research Center shows that support for the death penalty is at a 40 year low. The number of people who support capital punishment dropped another six percent since 2011.
In addition, more Americans are becoming aware of the risk of executing the wrongfully convicted. A record 71 percent of Americans now believe there is a possibility that an innocent person will be put to death. This news comes days after Anthony Hinton was released from Death Row, becoming the 152nd person on the list of death row exonerees.
The study also showed that 61 percent of Americans believe the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes. And more than half say that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death.
We applaud the LA Times Editorial Board for taking a difficult stand against the death penalty in the federal case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
This was a terrible crime that killed three and wounded hundreds, and it is understandable that Americans want vengeance. But we must remember that the death penalty is not a deterrent for would be terrorists and there is no benefit to society in avenging death with more death.
The Times Board admits regret in calling for the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001, saying “that editorial was written out of passion, not justice.”
In the years since McVeigh’s execution, support for the death penalty in this country has fallen. Since 1996, support has dropped by 23 percentage points, reaching its lowest level in almost two decades, according to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center. In just the past eight years, six states have abolished the death penalty and five have imposed moratoriums.
As the Times Board said, Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole because “killing another human being is immoral, whether by bomb or by lethal injection.”
In just two weeks, three inmates on San Quentin’s Death Row have died. Though sentenced to death, they weren’t executed but join the overwhelming number who die while awaiting appellate review.
More than 1,000 people have been sentenced to death in California, and only 13 have been executed since 1967. At least 67 inmates have died from natural causes (two are still pending autopsies). Records show that all but one had a direct appeal or habeas petition still pending, and one third died before the state Supreme Court could even review their conviction or sentence on direct appeal.
This again proves the dysfunction of the California death penalty system. In July, Judge Cormac Carney ruled the decades-long delays are unconstitutional and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Death Penalty Focus supports that ruling and recently joined other groups in submitting an amicus brief on behalf of the inmate whose sentence was overturned. The brief demonstrates that many Death Row inmates are denied their right to due process by the mistakes that characterize the state’s death penalty.
Not only does capital punishment waste taxpayer dollars but the delays often preclude inmates who are innocent or denied a fair trial from obtaining relief because they die before the judicial review is complete. It’s time to get rid of this expensive, ineffective and broken system.
Pictured is Teofilo Medina Jr., who died March 22 at the age of 70.
An Arizona judge recently dismissed all charges against Debra Milke, but only after she spent half her life in a cell on Death Row.
Her conviction was based on evidence from Armando Saldate, a corrupt police detective who is now retired. He was known to lie under oath and violate suspects’ rights during interrogations. Prosecutors failed to mention this at trial and Milke was convicted based on his testimony.
She spent 22 years in prison.
“The constitution requires a fair trial,” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “This never happened in Milke’s case.”
Milke brings to 151 the number of people freed from Death Row. We wonder how many others there are.
As long as we have the death penalty, executing innocent people remains a possibility.
Pope Francis has again condemned the death penalty, saying it is unacceptable, unjust, and inhumane.
During a visit from the delegation of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, the Pope reaffirmed his abolitionist stance and said that no crime warrants killing and the suffering that comes with it.
Capital punishment "is cruel, inhuman and degrading, as is the anxiety that precedes the moment of execution and the terrible wait between the sentence and the application of the punishment, a 'torture' which, in the name of a just process, usually lasts many years and, in awaiting death, leads to sickness and insanity."
The pope said the death penalty brings no justice to victims of crime and encourages revenge. Quoting Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “The Idiot”, the pontiff said “murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands."
On Friday, a number of groups filed legal briefs on behalf of Ernest Jones, the Death Row inmate whose sentence was overturned by Judge Cormac Carney in July. In that ruling, the judge declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional saying the delays caused by the dysfunctional system amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed that case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying the process provides protections to defendants. The Death Penalty Focus amicus brief rebuts the Attorney General’s argument by demonstrating that many Death Row inmates are denied their right to due process by the delays, dysfunction and mistakes that characterize California’s death penalty system.
And their families suffer with them. During decades-long delays, inmates are more likely to die than have their arguments heard. If they do live long enough for a new trial, their mental health has often deteriorated or the evidence is lost or stale.
It is estimated that for every death sentence, eight family members are profoundly affected. Families of inmates on Death Row deal with guilt, stigma and social isolation that can lead to depression, hopelessness, even suicide. These hidden victims often aren’t able to ever find out if their loved ones are actually innocent.
And as California’s Death Row population rises, the delays grow longer. The current average of 30 years will soon reach 40 and 500 more inmates will die before the courts rule on their cases.
The DPF brief outlines three cases:
Ralph International Thomas. He was granted a new trial due to ineffective counsel 30 years after his death sentence but was unable to benefit because his health deteriorated. He died in custody and his mother had to deal with the guilt of not being able to afford private counsel.
Dennis Lawly. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic who represented himself when he was sentenced to death. Another man later confessed and the murder weapon was found but Mr. Lawly was awaiting a hearing when he died in his cell in San Quentin. His mother blames herself for his deluded defense. She said he wouldn’t have gone to death row if he had a lawyer. She’ll never know if he would have been exonerated.
Jarvis Masters. He was 19 when he was sentenced to 23 years. Although he completed his sentence, he was not released because he received a death sentence in connection with the murder of correctional officer. Another man confessed but Mr. Masters’ appeal is still pending.
The states of Florida and Alabama have delayed pending executions until the Supreme Court rules on whether the lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional.
This comes after the high court decided last month to review an Oklahoma case after botched executions led to concerns about the effectiveness of the drug midazolam as a sedative.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he believes there should be a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment until a decision is made by the Supreme Court on whether the procedure violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
A decision is expected in June. Until then, all states with similar protocols should join Florida and Alabama and halt executions.
But the complicated questions about whether it’s possible to humanely execute people are just another indication that the system is irreparable. In addition to the issue of constitutionality, a majority of Americans prefer a sentence of life in prison because of the high cost of the death penalty and proven risk of executing innocent people.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on the death penalty today, saying the system is flawed, ineffective, unjust, and expensive.
The state houses the fifth largest Death Row in the nation with 186 prisoners. In nearly 40 years, there have been 434 signed death warrants but only three inmates have been executed.
“This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system,” Wolf wrote in a statement explaining his decision. “It is drawn out, expensive and painful for all involved.”
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated including six men in Pennsylvania. Wolf said the system is “riddled with flaws making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible.”
In noting further defects of the capital punishment system, Wolf pointed to strong evidence that a person is more likely to be charged with a capital offense and sentenced to death if he is poor, a minority, and particularly where the victim of the crime was white.
The governor’s action is part of a growing movement to abandon the practice. Pennsylvania becomes the fourth state to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, in addition to six states that have abolished capital punishment since 2007.
Wolf will await a report from a task force on capital punishment and until then will grant reprieves each time an execution is scheduled. The first temporary reprieve was given to Terrence Williams who was set to be executed on March 4.
"I think Governor Wolf realizes that when you have more exonerated prisoners than executed prisoners in 30 years, the system handed to you was obviously broken," said Nick Yarris, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 21 years on Pennsylvania’s Death Row.
Like Pennsylvania, California has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on a system that serves no useful purpose, risks executing an innocent person, and is increasingly losing support. According to the California Legislative Analyst Office, replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole would save the state $130 million each year. Yet California continues to house the largest death row population in the country.
The only option is to end this costly charade and replace it with a system that is fair and consistent for everyone.
Dean Smith, who died Saturday at the age of 83, was a legendary basketball coach best known for his 36 years coaching at the University of North Carolina where he oversaw a record number of victories.
He was also adamant about ending capital punishment in this country.
He visited prisons, counseled inmates on Death Row, and even confronted the North Carolina governor on the issue.
"You're a murderer,” Smith said to Gov. Jim Hunt during a meeting in Raleigh. He then pointed at an aide and others in the room. “And you’re a murderer, and you’re a murderer, and I'm a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers."
It’s not often that a famous sports figure addresses such a political topic, but Smith made his lifelong opposition to the death penalty known. He said numerous times that state sponsored killing is immoral, unfair, and ineffective.
"I do not condone any violence against any of God's children, and that is why I am opposed to the death penalty," he wrote in his autobiography.
Smith often invoked his religious beliefs to explain his opposition, but he also spoke about his fears of killing the innocent and the racial injustice of the court system.
Support for capital punishment is dropping nationwide, and we hope to see more public figures take a stand like Coach Smith.
At a recent lecture at the University of Florida, Justice John Paul Stevens said there is evidence “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that Texas executed an innocent man in 1989.
Justice Stevens referenced the book “The Wrong Carlos” which tells the story of Carlos DeLuna, a 27-year-old man who was executed for a murder in 1983. The book, by Columbia Law School professor James Liebman and a team of his students, provides compelling evidence that DeLuna was innocent and the actual killer remained free.
“The person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished,” Justice Stevens said. “Society should not take the risk that that might happen again.”
We know that innocent people end up on Death Row, even though Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has insisted that no innocent man has ever been executed. Scalia wrote in 2006 during Kansas v. Marsh:
“It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case – not one – in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.”
The state of Oklahoma killed Charles Warner on January 15. He was the first inmate executed by lethal injection in the state since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett last April that Prison Warden Anita Trammell described as a “bloody mess.”
After Lockett’s mishandled execution, Oklahoma put a moratorium on the death penalty in order to review what went wrong. The state spent over $70,000 renovating its death chamber and another $34,000 to purchase new equipment.
However, the state still included the controversial sedative midazolam in its three drug formula. The use of midazolam came under fire following the bungled executions of Lockett, Dennis McGuire in Ohio and Joseph Wood in Arizona last year. McGuire gasped for air and loudly snorted during his 15 minute long execution, while Wood was injected 15 times and took nearly two hours to die.
Attorneys for Warner sent an appeal to the Supreme Court requesting they stay the execution until the new protocol could be evaluated. But the court denied the appeal with a 5-4 vote.
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that she was, “deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol.” She went on to add, “I believe that we should have granted petitioners’ application for stay. The questions before us are especially important now, given States’ increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution.”
In Lockett’s execution, the state administered 100 milligrams of midazolam. This dosage was increased to 500 milligrams for Warner, but serious doubt still remains that upping the dosage fixes the problem.
According to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, “(Oklahoma) has not shown that this drug will produce the necessary level of unconsciousness to allow the execution to proceed humanely.”
During Warner’s appeal, scientific evidence was presented which showed that midazolam is subject to a “ceiling effect” meaning that once it reaches a saturation point, regardless of the dosage amount, it is no longer able to keep someone unconscious. It is likely for this reason that the Food and Drug Administration has not approved it for use as an anesthetic.
One of the main issues that states have faced in recent years, as was made evident in the four botched executions in 2014, is the increased difficulty in finding pharmaceutical companies that are willing to have their drugs used in the death penalty process. Until 2010, states used a drug formula that included the anesthetic sodium thiopental. However, this drug is no longer manufactured in the United States and European companies refuse to sell it for use in executions.
As a result, states are resorting to using new formulas and untested doses. Some states are even obtaining drugs from compounding pharmacies. These companies do not go through the same approval process for their products that large manufacturers face, leading to concerns about the safety and effectiveness of their products.
Unfortunately, these difficulties have not resulted in states re-thinking capital punishment, but have led them to finding alternative ways to carry out executions.
In Oklahoma, the state legislature is expected to consider legislation that would make the use of nitrogen gas, a legal execution method. Tennessee passed a law in 2014 to reinstate the electric chair if the state is unable to secure lethal injection drugs. While in Utah, the state is considering bringing back the firing squad.
It is deeply troubling that while support for capital punishment continues to fall, states are resorting to extreme measures to keep this egregious practice alive. It is becoming more and more difficult for states to find “humane” ways to carry out capital punishment, which is just a further illustration that the death penalty system in our country is not working and is getting worse.
Rabbi Leonard Beerman, a founding board member of Death Penalty Focus who remained an active, supportive and inspiring member of our organization over many years, passed away on Christmas Eve. His loss leaves a hole in the universe.
A man always willing to challenge himself, Leonard joined the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and then the Haganah in 1947, during the founding of the State of Israel. He did so, he once said, to determine whether he was truly a pacifist or a simply a coward. He was, it is abundantly clear, a pacifist; he remained committed to his principles for the rest of his long and extraordinary life.
The founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, Leonard was a leader in the ecumenical movement, a founder of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam and every one since, a courageous supporter of civil and human rights, workers’ rights, gay rights and a champion of all those society overlooks or leaves behind.
Those of us fortunate enough to know Leonard saw in him an example of what it is possible to be in our world: a person of conscience and courage, one who not only had principles but lived by them, one who, if he had fears, refused to allow them to dictate his choices.
Leonard’s love of life, his brilliance, his clarity of vision, his generosity of spirit, his subtle wit, his utter honesty, his candor and his incredible courage combined to make this simple, unassuming man the moral compass for everyone he encountered. Agree with him or not, like him or not – and few could not – the vitality of his naked love for the unquenchable, indomitable human spirit left everyone touched, moved, and, even if secretly, awash in admiration.
The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart said, "There's a place in the soul that neither time nor flesh nor no created thing can ever touch." That place was well known to Leonard. It is what he spoke to when saying, “An awakened conscience is what makes a human being, what makes a woman or a man more nearly a companion of God.”
Leonard saw that as we struggle to ensure that the value of every human person is recognized and honored, we move toward the light. As we insist that the least among us, even the violent, who because of the horror they inflict on others are spat upon, defiled, stripped of human status and condemned as “monsters,” still deserve to have the divine spark of humanity that is buried – no matter how deeply - within them recognized, embraced, cherished and nurtured.
He knew that “this life, this world, for all of its cynicism and stupidity and anguish, is also a place where change is possible…” As he saw it, “the most deeply human and courageous men and women are those who in life and death dare to submit themselves to the ordeal of walking through the fire of selfhood, of loneliness and tragedy.” And this led him to understand that “to be most deeply human is to be among the resisters, to resist whatever demeans life.”
Leonard Beerman will remain the moral compass for those of us lucky enough to have known him. To work with him in pursuit of peace, justice and human rights is to have been blessed.
Let me only add that one of the greatest achievements of my life is to have been embraced by him as his friend.
Warren Hill, who has a lifelong well-documented intellectual disability, is scheduled to be executed Jan. 27 in Georgia.
“Every single expert who has examined him, including those retained by the state, agrees that Mr. Hill has intellectual disability,” said Hill's attorney Brian Kammer. “The only reason he is in grave danger of an unconstitutional execution is that the Georgia standard is unscientific and, as Mr. Hill’s case painfully shows, impossible to satisfy.”
Because of the Georgia standard, Hill has been denied the constitutional protection from execution under Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which prohibits the execution of persons with intellectual disability.
A clemency hearing is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 26. Attorneys are gathering letters of support. Please show your support and sign a letter asking for clemency for Warren Hill.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned the United States death penalty in a newly-released report, saying it is troubled by recent executions and prolonged delays that amount to torture.
In a series of recent votes, the UN has shown that the majority of the world’s states condemn any use of the death penalty. However, the new report goes further, in detailing how the practice of capital punishment in the US violates this nation’s obligations under international law—specifically the UN Convention against Torture, to which the US is a signatory.
“The UN has confirmed what many observers said after the series of botched executions last year: America’s use of the death penalty is a form of torture that violates international law,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. “As the UN recommends, the US should stop all executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty, in order to honor the international treaties it has signed.”
On a more positive note, the report welcomed the abolition of the death penalty in six US states since the committee last reported on the US in 2006.
Read the text of the report on capital punishment in the United States:
25. While welcoming that six states have abolished capital punishment during the period under review, the Committee expresses its concern at the State party’s admission that it is not currently considering abolishing the death penalty at the federal level. It also expresses its concern at reported cases of excruciating pain and prolonged suffering that procedural irregularities have caused to condemned prisoners in the course of their execution. The Committee is specially troubled by the recent cases of botched executions in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Ohio. The Committee is equally concerned at the continued delays in recourse procedures which keep prisoners sentenced to death in a situation of anguish and incertitude for many years. The Committee notes that in certain cases such situation amounts to torture in so far as it corresponds to one of the forms of torture (i.e. the threat of imminent death) contained in the interpretative understanding made by the State party at the time of ratification of the Convention (arts. 1, 2 and 16).
The State party should review its execution methods in order to prevent pain and prolonged suffering. The Committee recalls that according to the Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty (approved by Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 of 25 May 1984), where capital punishment occurs, it shall be carried out so as to inflict the minimum suffering.
The State party should reduce the procedural delays that keep prisoners sentenced to capital punishment in the death row for prolonged periods.
The State party is encouraged to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolish the death penalty, to commute the sentences of individuals currently on death row and to accede to the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.
The UN Committee Against Torture is a body of 10 independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The United States signed the Convention in 1988 and ratified it in 1994.
Posted by Mike Farrell & Matt Cherry on December 3rd, 2014
Killing in your name?
So far this year 33 people have been killed in your name. They were all prisoners executed in the US.
Some were probably innocent. Many died slowly and painfully. All were killed in the name of the people. More than 3,000 are now on death row waiting for our government to kill them. If we allow them to be executed, they too will be killed in your name.
Unlike other top execution nations—China, Saudi Arabia and Iran—we’re not killing prisoners because we're a dictatorship or theocracy, but because we the people have chosen to do so. It's killing of the people, by the people, and for the people. But the disturbing fact that we the people are responsible also means that we the people can stop the killing. We can join the rest of the West in abolishing the death penalty.
For more than quarter of a century, Death Penalty Focus has helped countless Americans find their voice, tell their story and be heard. We have helped crime victims, law enforcement professionals and many others affected by the death penalty system to give voice to their concerns.
People are listening. The most recent Field Poll showed that support for the death penalty in California has fallen 12% in the past three years. That's as much as it fell in the previous twenty years.
We can do so much more if you add your support. We can organize more local groups, visit more campuses, speak with more community groups, and increase our visibility in the media. It's our democracy. We need to raise our voices and tell our elected representatives to stop the executions.
We hope you will choose to join us by supporting Death Penalty Focus, and that you will choose to do so as generously as you can within your means.
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.