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.
Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on February 24th, 2014
Vera Crutcher's son was murdered in California. She remains opposed to the death penalty.
Last week, death penalty supporters officially launched a signature gathering effort for an initiative that would change death penalty procedures, which they claim would bring "reform" to the system. As we know, there is no way to fix California’s death penalty, and this initiative would only result in even more delays and increased expenses.
Instead, real reform, spearheaded by families of murder victims in a number of States most recently including Connecticut (2012) and Maryland (2013), means replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole (LWOP), essentially death in prison. Replacing the death penalty will provide justice for murder victims and their families, as opposed to the deadly mirage of "reform" offered by the proposed initiative.
As Kathleen Garcia, a victim advocate and expert on traumatic grief who has herself lost a niece to murder, declared: "It is my opinion, as well as the view of other long-standing victim advocates throughout New Jersey, that our capital punishment system harmed the survivors of murder victims. It may have been put in place to serve us, but in fact it was a colossal failure for the many families I serve." She was a central figure in New Jersey's replacement of that broken system with life in prison without parole in 2007, the true reform supported in our state by groups such as California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Sadly, this proposed initiative would continue all the harms which victim-advocates such as Garcia have cautioned against, inflicting needless psychological trauma and diverting funds from programs which can provide survivors of murder victims with counselling, therapy, restitution, and community assistance on the road to healing.
First, this initiative offers a false promise to family members of murder victims. The initiative is so filled with legal and constitutional problems and would inevitably result in lengthy litigation. While the proponents claim this would allow families of murder victims to receive closure, it is clear that it simply will continue, or worsen, the agonizing journey through the trial, appeals, and clemency process to the possible destination of an actual execution. Even in States like Texas known for their busy death chambers, executions are becoming rarer, as society finds LWOP a more manageable and reliable alternative. As Garcia says, observing that getting through the criminal justice system is a challenge for murder survivors: "When the death penalty is added to the process, the survivor's connection to the system becomes a long-term and often multidecade nightmare that almost never ends in the promised result."
In contrast, replacing the death penalty with LWOP means swift, certain, and reliable justice. The murderer is sentenced to death in prison, and the victim's family can say "case closed." While these families often point out that there is no such thing as "closure" or "getting over" the violent death of a loved one, the LWOP solution spares them years of reopened wounds and relived trauma through the long legal quest for an execution, the "nightmare" of which Garcia speaks.
Secondly, California's death penalty system -- with or without the proposed changes -- diverts funds from Victims' Services programs that can improve the quality of life for family members of murder victims. In California, replacing the death penalty with LWOP, a punishment which can be carried out immediately even while any appeals are in progress, would save an estimated $117-$184 million dollars per year.
As Garcia states: "Every dollar we spend on a punishment that harms survivors is one we are taking away from the services that can address the emergent and long-term needs of all victims."
Third, the spectacle of the death penalty both during years of complex legal maneuverings and in the fateful days leading up to a possible execution, shifts the public's attention from the murder victim and his or her family and community to the murderer. Rather than honoring the victims and their lives, citizens are distracted by a new and overwhelming drama: "Shall we kill the killer?"
Perversely, some serial killers and other Death Row prisoners relish this publicity; but it does untold harm to family members of both murder victims and Death Row prisoners. Society deserves a sober and loving reflection to honor victims and their families, not a Roman circus giving murderers the limelight in a gripping new drama of life or death.
Fourth, California's death penalty, "reformed" or otherwise, sends the invidious message that some victims and families are more important or worthwhile than others, with the execution of the perpetrator as the gold standard of "justice for the victim," and a sentence of "only" LWOP or death in prison as a kind of consolation prize at best. Which murderers live or die can be influenced by such factors as race, class, and accidents of geography.
True reform, replacing the death penalty with LWOP, sends the message that all victims and families are valued, and that the worst killers will predictably and uniformly be sentenced to live, work, make restitution, and die in prison, a sentence which does not require a new act of killing.
Finally, family members of murder victims who must cope with the agony of an unsolved case where the killer may still be at large want justice for their loved ones, and for other victims and families relegated to "cold case" files. The futile initiative would not serve their needs.
As Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims, whose brother was murdered, states: "The death penalty won't bring my brother back or help to apprehend his murderer. We need to start investing in programs that will actually improve public safety and get more killers off the streets."
In short, this misguided and deeply flawed initiative cannot make a success of a broken death penalty system which has proved to be an epic FAIL for families of murder victims and for the community at large. Donald McCartin, for many years a self-described "hanging judge" in Orange County who sentenced nine defendants to death, sums up the reality of the death penalty as "a waste of time and money.... The only thing it does is prolong the agony of the victims' families."
Family members of murder victims such as Garcia and Kerr bid us march on to the true reform we almost achieved in 2012: the proposed initiative offers a mirage which is not an oasis of justice but a deeper legal and fiscal quagmire we must avoid.
Greg Wilhoit at the DPF Annual Awards Dinner, with attorney Ellen Eggers, exoneree Franky Carrillo, his wife Judy, and sister Nancy.
I am incredibly saddened to share the news that Greg Wilhoit, a death row exoneree, passed away late last week.
Greg spent five years on Oklahoma's death row for the murder of his wife, the conviction based on junk science around a bite mark. Later, experts proved that the bite mark on Greg's wife could not have belonged to him, and he was freed.
Greg was never compensated for his wrongful conviction. In fact, he
never even received an apology. It is shameful that the state of
Oklahoma would never admit their wrongdoing in his case, because it
would have meant so much to Greg and his family.
After being exonerated, Greg devoted his life to ending the death penalty. He worked with Witness to Innocence, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing, and DPF as a Justice Advocate. His compelling and tragic story, along with his passion, spirit, and determination to stop the system that tried to kill him, changed minds.
Though his life was challenging and he endured more than any person should have to, Greg was a kind person who was loved by many. His courageous activism and his captivating personality will not be forgotten.
On Thursday, January 16, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire using new, untested drugs. An expert anesthesiologist warned that one of the drugs was inappropriate to use in an execution, stating that it could cause the inmate to be conscious while suffering through the sensation that he was suffocating.
The doctors concerns were well-founded. Dennis McGuire appeared to have struggled and gasped for air for more than 10 minutes. Some witnesses say that the struggle endured even longer, for nearly 19 minutes.
This experimental execution that went horribly wrong is just the latest in a string of desperate and unacceptable attempts by states to prop up a failing death penalty system.
Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University specializing in execution methods, said, "[States] are out of control, taking ever greater risks with increasingly inappropriate drugs."
It is clearer than ever that this scramble to find new ways to execute people is heading down a dangerous path.
Death Penalty Focus is joining Ohioans to Stop Executions in calling on Governor Kasich to issue an immediate moratorium on all executions. This horrifying execution, which witnesses say resulted in “agony and terror”, should be a wakeup call to state leaders.
“Ring out the old year and ring in the new” has extra resonance for me and my family right now, because the end of 2013 marks the start of a new journey. You see, last month I accepted the position of executive director of Death Penalty Focus, and on January 2, I start working in that vital role. I am leaving my human rights work at the United Nations and moving across the continent to California to face a new human rights challenge: the abolition of the death penalty.
I took on this challenge because I believe that the global elimination of the death penalty is just a few steps away, and that the first of those steps must be the abolition of capital punishment in California.
California leads the country in the number of people it sentences to death, with 24 new death sentences in 2013, bringing the total to 747 death row inmates in California alone. It may not seem like one state could make such a difference to the world, but I assure you it can. My work at the United Nations taught me that countries across the globe look to the United States to lead the way. And currently many countries use us as an excuse to defend the practice of deliberately killing their own citizens. I’ve heard it directly from a diplomat’s smiling mouth: “You criticize us for executions, even though America executes far more than us.” Together, we can change that. We can make the US a positive example for abolishing the death penalty. Click here to make a gift to Death Penalty Focus.
Death Penalty Focus has led us to the verge of ending capital punishment in California. Proposition 34 showed how close we are to getting a majority to vote to stop the state from ever killing another citizen. Indeed, polls show that enthusiasm for the death penalty is waning across the nation—support for capital punishment is now at its lowest level since 1972. But taking those final steps to abolition will require more work, more outreach, and more funding.
As the new executive director, I personally need your help. We must take the next steps together. We must do even more, and give even more, to take California in the right direction. It can lead the nation in sentencing its citizens to die, or it can lead the world in ending the death penalty.
We are saddened to learn about the death of Delbert Tibbs, a death row exoneree who dedicated his life to ending the death penalty.
Delbert was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a 27-year-old man near Fort Myers, Florida, and spent three years in prison, two on death row, before the Florida Supreme Court reversed the case. The original prosecutor, James S. Long, declared that the case had been “tainted from the beginning and the
investigators knew it.”
Delbert later moved to Chicago where he wrote poetry and continued his advocacy against the death penalty as the Assistant Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence.
Delbert Tibbs inspired people wherever he went, and will continue doing so even after his passing.Thank you for sharing your story with the world.
Over the years, DPF has worked to build a broad coalition of people from diverse backgrounds to join the fight against the death penalty. This coalition includes law enforcement officials, exonerees, murder victims’ family members, and people of faith. Learn more about our programs, and watch the video below!
Reggie Griffin discusses his experience being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.
On October 25, Reginald Griffin became the 143rd person to be exonerated from death row since 1973.
Griffin was sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate in 1983. His conviction rested on testimony from two jailhouse informants, who received benefits for their testimony. Prosecutors also withheld key evidence from Griffin's defense regarding a screwdriver that had been found on another inmate.
Griffins sentence was eventually changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and in 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Griffin's conviction, saying that the conviction was not "worthy of confidence." He was released, but prosecutors immediately filed charges to retry him, citing DNA evidence that allegedly tied him to the murder.
However, that DNA evidence didn't "pan out", according to prosecutors, and the state dismissed the charges.
It took 30 years to clear his name, but Griffin is glad to put the nightmare behind him. "To not have this over my head is more than what words can describe.Now that it's over, I'm
going to try to put my life back together, to go on with my life," he told The Associated Press.
Griffin is the first death row exoneration of 2013, and the 4th person exonerated from Missouri. To find out more about death row exonerations, visit DPIC's Innocence Database.
Congratulations to Reggie, and to the team of lawyers who worked tirelessly to clear his name.
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2013/10/30/4587051/ex-death-row-inmate-exonerated.html#storylink=cpy
Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate in California, has been granted a hearing regarding human rights violations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which seeks to protect human rights and basic freedoms in the Americas. Cooper has been on death row in California for 29 years, and has always maintained his innocence.
Attorneys for Cooper stated that they are “hopeful
that the Commission will issue a decision directing that the United
States provide Mr. Cooper with a new trial in order to allow him to
prove once and for all that he is innocent of these crimes.”
Death Penalty Focus has submitted a letter to the Commission in support of Kevin Cooper, which expresses our concern about the facts of this case, as well as our stance that the death penalty is never an appropriate sentence.
To: Honorable Commissioners of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights
From: Mike Farrell, Chair of the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus
Virginia Van Zandt, Interim Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus
Re: Kevin Cooper v. United States, Case No. 12.831
Dear Members of the Court,
We write representing the Board of Directors, staff and thousands of members/supporters of Death Penalty Focus, one of the premier abolition organizations in the United States, in support of your attention to the plight of Kevin Cooper.
While we do not pretend to be qualified to judge the legal questions surrounding Kevin Cooper’s case, our 25 years of work against the death penalty in California and across the nation have made us painfully aware of the glaring faults inherent in this inappropriate, ineffective system and the grievous errors committed in its implementation. California houses our nation’s, and possibly the world’s, largest death row, currently encaging 742 condemned men and women.
Because of a judicially imposed moratorium, there has not been an execution in California in 7 years. This moratorium, however, can end at any moment and, regardless of the state’s ability to carry out executions, the condemned struggle to subsist under conditions which a recent report by our Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) says “clearly violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture.” This opinion, regarding both death row conditions and the death penalty itself, is shared by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.
As is the case with every killing state in the U.S., capital punishment’s use in California is primarily limited to racial minorities and those too poor to be able to afford an adequate defense. California has barely escaped killing six innocent men* who were tried, convicted, sentenced to death and spent years fearfully awaiting the executioner before finally being exonerated and freed.
But we did execute Thomas Thompson in 1998, a man Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a long-time veteran of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, described (New York University Law Journal) as “the first person in the Nation ever to be executed on the basis of a trial that an un-refuted decision of a United States Court of Appeals had held to be unconstitutional.”
While unable to argue the legal aspects of Kevin Cooper’s defense, we are keenly aware of the compelling 100-page dissent in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in his case in which Judge William A. Fletcher stated that Mr. Cooper was “probably” innocent. Four other judges joined his opinion, stating that “California may be about to execute an innocent man.”
We commend your careful attention to this troubling case.
Chair, Board of Directors
Virginia Van Zandt
Interim Executive Director
* California death row exonerees: Troy Lee Jones, Lee Perry Farmer, Jerry Bigelow, Patrick Croy, Shujaa Graham, Oscar Lee Morris
Herman Wallace endured 42 years of solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, decades of injustice, a battle with liver cancer so that he could finally say, "I am free." On Tuesday, October 1st Wallace was released and three days later he died in his sleep, due to his terminal disease. This case has received much spotlight because of the racism surrounding the conviction and the cruel treatment of being placed in SHU for decades. Herman Wallace is not a lone example of the injustices of the criminal system as he accounts for one of the Angola 3. The 'Angola 3,' Herman Wallace, Robert King and Albert Woodfox, were charged with the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller, in 1972. At the time of the murder, the 'Angola 3' were completing a sentence for armed robbery and played key roles in the Black Panther movement within the prison. Since their accusation of killing the guard, The Angola 3, were removed from general prison population and continue to claim their innocence.
Their trial was far from fair and decades of appeals have not produced enough change. As of today, October 4, Wallace has passed away with a looming re-indictment, King is free after having his conviction overturned in 2001, and Woodfox continues to live in solitary confinement. Justice will prevail when the court overturns all convictions and the 'Angola 3' receive an apology. But then, we should ask ourselves, is this really justice?
Herman, Your spirit will continue to inspire people to fight for a more humane and just world.
Tonight, Texas executed its 500th person since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
It is the first state to reach this unseemly milestone, with current Governor Rick Perry playing a major part, having presided over 260 executions (also a record). It’s a shocking number, and though it is certainly is a grim milestone, what does Texas executing its 500th person actually say about the current state of the death penalty in the United States?
The truth is: not much.
The death penalty has been in decline since the late-1990s, when executions reached a fever pitch.
In the past six years, six states have replaced their death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, which brings the number of death penalty-free states to 18. Of those 32 states that still have a death penalty on the books, only six have executed anyone this year.
Since life in prison without the possibility of parole became an alternative, juries have also been less inclined to sentence people to death. Even in Texas, the rate at which people are being sentenced to death is falling dramatically.
The current state of the death penalty is not reflected by this astronomical number. It is reflected in the downward trends in executions and new death sentences. It is reflected in the growing number of states that have replaced the death penalty. It is reflected in the shrinking number of states that are actually executing people.
Texas’ 500th execution is sobering, but the movement to replace the death penalty is only speeding up. The death penalty is prohibitively expensive, it’s taking away resources from programs that actually improve public safety, and we’re sentencing innocent people to die.
The death penalty is on the path toward demise, and Death Penalty Focus is committed to seeing this through to the end. Tonight was a grim reminder that our work is not yet done, but each year, we come closer to achieving our goal of ending the death penalty in the United States.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Sister Helen Prejean’s bestselling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. In celebration of this anniversary, the book will be re-released tomorrow, June 18th!
This book, recounting Sister Helen’s experience and bond with death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, helped bring more attention to the death penalty. Sister Helen created a much needed discussion about the death penalty, and though much progress has been made since the book was first released twenty years ago, she continues to work tirelessly to put an end to Capital Punishment once and for all.
This book has opened the eyes of the thousands of readers, and will continue to bring awareness to the death penalty issue in the years to come. Who knows? Perhaps for the 40th anniversary of Dead Man Walking, we will be celebrating the end of the death penalty in the U.S.!
They are supported by a broad coalition of charity partners of which we're excited to be a part and the project is totally interactive, which means you can have a hand in asking the questions and giving your feedback on the films as they're released.
In order to make this project happen, One for Ten needs support and funding. Watch what their project is all about, and if you want to see more, consider contributing to their campaign.
You can support this project by LIKING them on Facebook, FOLLOWING them on Twitter and SHARING their campaign with your networks.
We know that California's death penalty is broken. This new infographic by the California Innocence Project breaks down why - cost, wrongful convictions, and racial injustice. While California didn't vote to end the death penalty this time, the conversation must continue and more people must learn about these staggering statistics.
“The death penalty in California survived by a narrow vote on November 6, but around the country the signs are clear that capital punishment is slowly on the way out,” writes Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, in his article “The Slow Demise of the Death Penalty.”
“Although California's recent vote means the death penalty will remain, the 47% of voters who favored replacing it indicates many Californians have had a change of heart regarding capital punishment. By contrast, the initiative that reinstated the death penalty in 1978 garnered the support of 71% of voters.”
It's crunch time! We are now counting the days until November 6, when Californians will have a chance to vote YES on Proposition 34 to replace the state’s death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.
Death Penalty Focus has been a critical part of this effort, and now we're reaching out to ask our community for support.
The campaign is seeking volunteers to fill each of the following important roles:
Phone Banking: Help reach 100,000 voters by calling through a targeted list. Yes on 34 staff will train and prepare you to have these critical one-on-one conversations. You can join one of many phone bank locations or you can call from the comfort of your home.
Door-to-Door Canvassing: Join Democrats and other Prop 34 allies as they go door-to-door in their neighborhoods, passing out literature and discussing the important issues and candidates on this years ballot in order to ensure that our supporters go to the polls and vote!
Street Outreach: Meet up with fellow volunteers in your area at one of the many community festivals and events happening the Friday before the election. As a group, you will pass out flyers and answer questions about the initiative to passersby. The Monday and Tuesday before the election, Yes on 34 volunteers will be passing out flyers at busy transit locations.
Office Help: Help Yes on 34 prepare materials for Get Out The Vote by cutting flyers, packaging materials, and making volunteer recruitment phone calls.
Please sign up to volunteer via the Yes on 34 site here.
Thank you for your help - on November 6, we will make history!
It is often said that the death penalty is needed to give closure to the families who have lost their loved ones. But what if you find that the death penalty does not give you closure, relief, or justice?
In a series of videos, our CCV members explain why they have chosen to support alternatives to the death penalty. Please take a moment and watch!
Francisco “Franky” Carrillo Jr. was exonerated in March 2011 after serving two decades for a drive-by shooting he did not commit. Franky was just 16 years old when six witnesses identified him as the shooter. All six eventually recanted their testimony, admitting that they were influenced to make their identifications by the police and by each other. Franky now works as a Justice Advocate with DPF to tell his story and educate the public about the real danger of incarcerating and even executing the innocent.
After almost nine years in prison (two of which spent on death row), DNA evidence acquitted Kirk Bloodsworth of the 1984 rape and murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton. Kirk, a former Marine, was connected to the crime by testimony from five witnesses and forensic evidence that supposedly linked the print of his shoes with marks on the victim’s body. It wasn’t until 1992, thanks to the help of Centurion Ministries of Princeton, New Jersey, that Kirk obtained approval for the DNA testing that proved his innocence. The first U.S. death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA, Kirk now travels the country speaking for Witness to Innocence.
Nathson “Nate” Fields spent almost 20 years in prison, including more than 11 years on death row, for a double homicide he did not commit. Nate and a co-defendant were accused of killing members of a rival gang in 1984, and in 1998, it was uncovered that the judge in Nate’s case had taken a $10,000 bribe. Nate was granted a new trial, but his co-defendant exchanged testimony against him for a lesser sentence. However, in 2009, Nate was acquitted of all charges and was awarded a certificate of innocence. Nate serves on the board of Witness to Innocence.
Franky, Kirk, and Nate spoke out about their experiences and why they support SAFE California at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Bethel AME Church in Los Angeles and at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in San Diego.
(Image: Nate Fields and Kirk Bloodsworth enjoying the Los Angeles sun in between speaking engagements.)