The Death Penalty Blog : Displaying 10-29 of 382

Stay of Execution granted for Richard Glossip

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 16th, 2015

A last minute filing by attorneys for Richard Glossip led to a two-week stay of execution for the Oklahoma man who was hours from being killed Wednesday.

The court said it must give fair consideration to the materials submitted by attorneys. There is mounting evidence that Glossip may not be responsible for the crime which led to his death sentence.

Glossip was convicted of murder in 1997 for the death his boss Barry Van Treese. He wasn't the actual killer. The man who confessed to the killing, Justin Sneed, said Glossip hired him for the murder. The only evidence to support this theory was testimony from Sneed himself.

Both men were charged with murder, and both were convicted. But prosecutors only sought the death penalty in Glossip's case. Sneed, after cooperating with prosecutors by testifying against Glossip, was sentenced to life without parole.

The controversial case has led to strong public outcry, with supporters ranging from actress Susan Sarandon to former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican death penalty proponent, demanding a reexamination of the case. More than 235,000 people signed a petition asking for the stay.

Sister Helen Prejean, Glossip's spiritual adviser, has led the fight to save his life.

A new execution date has been set for Sept. 30.

Read the stay order.

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The Fight to Save Richard Glossip

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 10th, 2015

Actress Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean are on a crusade to save the life of a man scheduled to die on September 16. Richard Glossip, who was twice convicted for murder but maintains his innocence, has an execution date with the state of Oklahoma.

The women, along with hundreds of thousands of others around globe, believe Glossip was wrongfully convicted and should not be executed. The actress and anti-death penalty advocate want a chance to present information that wasn’t used at the trials. They have made multiple pleas to the governor and circulated a petition asking her to grant a stay which has more than 226,000 signatures. She, so far, has refused.

It’s a known fact that Glossip didn’t actually kill anyone. He was convicted in a 1997 murder for hire scheme. His first conviction was later overturned but he was convicted a second time in 2004 and sentenced to die again.

Glossip’s co-worker Justin Sneed admitted he killed their boss Barry Van Treese with a baseball bat at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City. Prosecutors argued Glossip, who worked as a manager, made Sneed do this because he thought he was going to be fired. Glossip had no criminal record and there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime.

A story by The Intercept outlines transcripts that show Sneed was encouraged to implicate Glossip and able to avoid the death penalty by testifying against him. His story became more detailed as time passed. His daughter wrote a letter to the Oaklahoma Pardon and Parole Board asking them to save Glossip. She said her father spoke to her about recanting his testimony. But he was afraid of losing his own deal.

Glossip had a reprieve last January when the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed his challenge to the lethal injection protocol. But once they upheld it, a new date for his death was set by the state.

Sister Helen, who serves as Glossip’s spiritual advisor, has created a page with multiple ways people can help.

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World Day Against the Death Penalty

Posted by David Crawford on September 9th, 2015

13th Annual World Day Against the Death Penalty

Every year on October 10, people around the world rally to the cause of ending capital punishment. This year, the theme of World Day is "The Death Penalty Does Not Stop Drug Crimes."

In spite of a marked global movement away from the death penalty, so far in 2015 we've seen an alarming number of executions for drug-related offenses. Whereas around 75% of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, there are 33 that retain the option to execute people for drug use or trafficking, and 13 have actually done so in the last 5 years. This particularly the case in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Middle East. (Although the US Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy v. Louisiana that executions are unconstitutional for crimes in which a victim was not killed, it did not bar the death penalty for crimes against the state. Theoretically, this means that drug trafficking could be considered a death-penalty offense, but it would be unprecedented.)

Map of countries that retain the death penalty for drug offenses. Courtesy of World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Perhaps the most notorious incident this year was the execution of 8 of the so-called Bali 9 by the Indonesian government. It led to a worldwide movement to spare their lives, with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, legendary boxer Manny Pacquiao, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson condemning the killings along with hundreds of thousands of other people around the world.

#KeepHopeAlive and #IStandForMercy were used in solidarity with the Bali 9 before they were executed by the Indonesian government earlier this year People around the world used #KeepHopeAlive and #IStandForMercy to protest the execution of the Bali 9 earlier this year.

Reflecting on the executions, Branson wrote, "I hope some good will come out of these tragic events, as more and more people realise inhumane death penalty laws must end globally, now. [P]ublic disgust for the death penalty grows and hope increases that an end to the death penalty is in sight."

With these and other drug-related executions this year, it seems fitting that we turn our attention to this disturbing international aberration. Similar to a debunked, yet common, argument heard in the United States, the death penalty is said to be a deterrent to both drug abuse and drug trafficking in retentionist nations. As is the case with other crimes, there is no credible evidence to show that executions yield public safety benefits by decreasing drug abuse and importation. For example, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that drug use remained fairly stable in countries that retain the death penalty for such offenses. Moreover, most of the people killed during this time frame were convicted for using cannabis, a drug that is relatively harmless when compared to others (including tobacco and alcohol), undermining the supposed "public health" interests retentionist governments cite to justify killing their own citizens and residents. The death penalty simply cannot solve the societal problems that lead people down the path toward serious drug abuse.

It is also argued that the death penalty is needed to prevent the illegal importation of drugs. That was, after all, the offense for which the Bali 9 were convicted. Many point to Singapore as an example of how such brutal and draconian polices do not even meet their own objectives, let alone live up to international human rights standards. Despite hanging hundreds of people, imports remain at record levels. Like drug abuse, the problem of drug trafficking will not be solved by executing people.

With all of that in mind, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty is advocating for common-sense replacements for killing people in response to drug offenses:

  • "Demand-reduction and harm-reduction programmes (prevention, treatment, education)."
  • "Supply-reduction interventions (drug interdiction, dismantlement of drug trafficking organizations,  alternative development programmes, eradication, control of precursor chemicals)"
  • "Efforts to control illicit financial controls"

For more information about how to join in this year's global advocacy day against the executions for drug crimes, visit the World Coalition's World Day 2015 page.

Death Penalty Focus Week

Last year, we launched our first annual Death Penalty Focus Week in the days leading up to World Day Against the Death Penalty. We helped to organize events around the state of California to focus on the people and issues involved in the movement to make executions a thing of the past.

We featured events for people whose faith led them to work for the abolition of capital punishment, an event focusing on innocent people sentenced to die, and others to help raise funds for activists who are keeping the movement alive and well.

Innocence Day speakers Nick Yarris, Gloria Killian, Obie Anthony, Kash Register, and Ronnie Sandoval (mother of Arthur Carmona)

The "Innocence Day" event was particularly popular. Thanks to the help of Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent, we were able to gather 5 people who have personally been effected by wrongful convictions and give them a platform to tell their stories. It even made the news in Los Angeles.

We are looking to have a second annual Death Penalty Focus Week in 2015, from October 4 to World Day on October 10. Stay tuned to, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more information about upcoming events. If you have an idea for an event in your area, contact David Crawford, DPF's Director of Community Outreach and Education, at

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A Farewell to Julian Bond

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 9th, 2015

The abolitionist community lost a hero when civil rights leader Julian Bond passed away last month. Bond was largely known for his relentless work in the struggle for civil rights. But in addition to fighting racial discrimination, he was a tireless advocate for basic human rights like welfare legislation, a minimum wage provision, anti-poverty programs and an end to capital punishment.

Bond talked about his opposition to the death penalty in his early days when it was still unpopular, way before the country was as divided as it is now.

Bond grew up in Pennsylvania and went to Morehouse College in Atlanta. He helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was a leading voice during protests and marches for voting rights in the 1960s. He co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit fighting for civil rights in Montgomery, Ala., with Morris Dees and served as president.

“With Julian’s passing, the country has lost one of its most passionate and eloquent voices for the cause of justice,” wrote Dees. “He advocated not just for African Americans but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all.”

Death Penalty Focus President Mike Farrell met Bond in Atlanta in the early 80s when the two were touring with an anti-war show trying to raise awareness about the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America.

“He was then and continued to be a keenly intelligent, accessible, outspoken leader on the important issues of the day, both domestic and foreign,” Farrell said. “He was always available, always open, always willing to lend an ear or a hand or a voice in support of the powerless, always ready to stand against mindless authoritarianism.“

Bond became chairman of the NAACP in 1998 and held that position for a decade.

Bond spoke out about all forms of discrimination and advocated for every group including the LGBT community. In an interview with Anderson Cooper in 2013, he urged the civil rights movement to join the fight for gay rights.

"I understand particularly if you're black and you like to think of the civil rights (movement) as something black people do," Bond said. "But this is not something we own. It's something we ought to share with others and say 'Try this, we did this and it worked, try this, don't do this, it didn't work that well.' Other things we ought to say to people, 'Do what we did, we will help you if we can, and remember, we are among you.'"

We join the country in mourning this visionary and tireless champion.

“Justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life,” said President Obama. “Julian Bond helped change his country for the better. And what better way to be remembered than that.”

Below is a speech Bond made at the Skidmore College Commencement in May.

My grandfather was born in Kentucky in 1863, and because of this, freedom didn’t come for him until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1863.

He and his mother were property, like a horse or a chair. As a young girl, she had been given away as a wedding gift to a new bride, and when that bride became pregnant, her husband—that’s my great-grandmother’s master and owner—exercised his right to take his wife’s slave as his mistress. That union produced two children, one of them my grandfather.

Your presence here attests to the value you place on education and your willingness to make sacrifices to obtain it. The same was true for my grandfather. At age 15, barely able to read or write, he hitched his tuition—a steer—to a rope and walked 100 miles across Kentucky to Berea College, and the college took him in. When he graduated from Berea 13 years later, the college asked him to deliver the commencement address.

He said then:
The pessimist from his corner looks out on the world of wickedness and sin and, blinded by all that is good or hopeful in the condition and progress of the human race, bewails the present state of affairs and predicts woeful things for the future. In every cloud he beholds a destructive storm, in every flash of lightning an omen of evil, and in every shadow that falls across his path a lurking foe.

He forgets that the clouds also bring life and hope, that lightning purifies the atmosphere, that shadow and darkness prepare for sunshine and growth, and that hardships and adversity nerve the race, as the individual, for greater efforts and grander victories.

“Greater efforts and grander victories”—that was the promise the generation born in slavery made a century and a half ago. That was the promise made by the generation that won the great world war for democracy seven decades ago. That was the promise made by those who brought democracy to America’s darkest corners five decades ago.

And that is the promise you must seek to honor as you leave these ceremonies and enter the world beyond.

When the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954 in the case called Brown v. Board of Education, a vast army of nonviolent protestors rose up to challenge segregation’s morality as well. Students like you began embracing jail without bail, when they sat down to stand up for their rights. They attacked segregated ballot boxes across the South as well.

Throughout this period the federal government helped only reluctantly, and then only when white property or people seemed at risk. State and local government worked in active concert with white terrorists, and the movement had few allies.

But from the first it was a people’s movement. The cumulative acts of their passive resistance led to the three great civil rights milestones of the 1960s: the 1963 march on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As we celebrate these milestones, we celebrate the ordinary women and men who made the movement mighty.

We celebrate Robert and Jeannie Graetz. On the Sunday after Rosa Parks’s arrest, Martin Luther King Jr. called on his congregation to join the planned one-day boycott. Other black ministers across the city did the same, as did one white minister, Robert Graetz, who pastored a black Lutheran congregation. Weeks after the boycott came to a successful end, the Graetzes’ home was virtually destroyed by a bomb while their family, including their four-day-old baby, slept.

We celebrate Dorothy Counts. She was 15 years old when, in September 1957, she enrolled in an all-white high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. As Dorothy walked to school, the wife of the leader of the White Citizens’ Council urged the boys to “keep her out” and the girls to spit on her. She kept on walking. Many people threw rocks at her. Many did spit on her—so many that her mother said when Dorothy got home her dress was so wet with spit she could wring it out.

We celebrate Hartman Turnbow, a black farmer in Mississippi, the most brutal state of the old Confederacy. I remember him. Dressed like the farmer in coveralls, boots, and an old hat, Mr. Turnbow carried a briefcase. When he opened the briefcase, there was nothing in it but an automatic. In April 1963, Mr. Turnbow went with a group of other black farmers in Holmes County, Mississippi, to try to register to vote. When the sheriff asked, “Who’ll be the first?” No one moved. Then Mr. Turnbow said, “Me, Hartman Turnbow. I came here to die to vote. I’m the first.”

Four days later, the Klan firebombed his home and fired multiple shots into the living room. Mr. Turnbow fired back. Then the sheriff charged him with arson, accusing him of setting fire to his own uninsured home.

We celebrate Fannie Lou Hamer. If Mississippi was the most repressive state, Mrs. Hamer was its most heroic freedom fighter. When the movement came to her town of Ruleville in 1962, she was 44 years old and a timekeeper on a plantation. She joined eagerly. She gave us a wonderful slogan when she said, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The movement succeeded in spite of cowards planting bombs in the night, in spite of shots fired in the darkness, in spite of lynch mobs and hooded thugs, in spite, as Dr. King said, of the brutality of a dying order shrieking across the land.

In its successes, it has given you graduates much of what has brought you here today. As we honor you for what you have achieved, so should you honor them for what they achieved for you.

They helped you learn how to be free.

They gave you the freedom to enter the larger world protected from its worst abuses.

If you are black or female or gay, their struggles prevent your race or gender or sexual orientation from being the arbitrary handicap today that it was then.

If you belong to an ethnic minority or if you are disabled, your ethnicity or disability cannot now be used to discriminate against you as it was then.
If you are Catholic or Muslim or Jewish, your faith cannot be an impediment to your success.

As you grow older, because of what they did then, you will be able to work as long as you are capable.

Your job—your responsibility—is to make these protections more secure, to expand them for your generation and those who will soon follow you.
Our future as a nation depends on our willingness to continue to reach into the racial cleavage that defines American society and to change the racial contours of our world.

In 1954 the federal government’s brief in Brown argued that school desegregation was a Cold War imperative, a necessary weapon to win America’s battles overseas. Current events give us the same imperative—to prove to friend and foe alike that our commitment to justice is real.
Wherever you may go from here, if there are hungry minds or hungry bodies nearby, you can feed them. If there are precincts of the powerless poor nearby, you can organize them. If there is racial or ethnic injustice, you can attack and destroy it.

By this ritual today, you are about to be officially enrolled in an elite within our nation: the community of educated women and men. As you go forward from this place, we all hope you will do well. But we hope you will also do good.

You must place interest in principle above interest on principal.
An early attempt at ending illiteracy in the South developed a slogan that was also their method: “Each One Teach One” until all could read.

Perhaps your slogan could be “Each One Reach One.”

Each one reach one until all are registered and voting.

Each one reach one until all are productive citizens of our world.

Each one reach one until the weak are strong and the sick are healed.

Each one reach one until your problem is mine, until mine is yours.

Just as it is not enough not to do evil, it is not enough just to do good.

It may be helpful to think of your task in this way:

Two men sitting by a river see, to their great shock, a helpless baby floating by. They rescue the child, and to their horror another baby soon comes floating down the stream. When that child is pulled to safely, another child comes floating by.

“Come back!” yells the man in the water. “We must save this baby!”
“You save it,” the other man yells back. “I’m going to find out who is throwing babies in the river and I’m going to make them stop!”

Racial minorities serve society like the canaries that miners used to carry to warn them when the underground air was becoming too toxic to breathe. But too many people want to put gas masks on the canaries instead of eliminating the poison in the air. Too many want to put life preservers on the babies, instead of stopping them from being thrown into a treacherous, dangerous stream.

As you aspire to greater efforts and grander victories, you must be prepared to offer not just love but justice, not gas masks but pure air, not life preservers but an end to throwing babies away.

This is not easy work, but you know what hard work is— that is what brought you here today.

I urge you to continue to do and be your best—and to apply your talents not just to bettering yourselves, not just doing social service, but bringing social justice.

If my grandfather were here, I think he would ask me now, “What did you do with your freedom?” Some day someone will ask you, “What did you do with your education?”

Be sure you have an answer—for your family, your nation, your world. They are counting on you.

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The Poetry of Wiley Bridgeman

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 9th, 2015

Fancy Colors

Where in our myriad of color could foundation lie
That kalidascope expressing amour
Those expectant ventures we'd traverse in joy
Those visions we came to adore
They be our height and buoyancy to depth
They were fancy within our minds
So Fancy Colors, psychologically
Gave birth to our infinite finds
They lie at our dawn, rooted in pace;
With the exceleration we learnt should be cheer
Humbled we were to those silent pells
Only in heart could we hear
Let us wake clever our fortitude
We were models in love's living rudder's
T'was the conviction where our foundation lie
A tenacity for Fancy Colors

My Woman

My woman is
sensuous fibers of
untouched silks,
Laughing out loud.
She hides her
behind sunlit blushes,
And never shows weaknesses
through sighs or tears.
Being raised by hero's
under southern skies,
She knows how to sop buttered bread
in mayple syrup.
She's a lover of today. . . . .
Tomorrow's dream love. . . . .
A lover!

The Subject Compared

I am the subject, compared by you subjects, for your pleasure by subject,
This subject compared.
To compare the subject, the subject compared, one must honor as subject,
The first subject bared.
So play as the subject, with subjects in view,
Subjects from old, and subjects made new.
Such cancels subject's issue, doubting subjects for "why",
Enhancing the subjects main subject, you lie.
One above is an absolute, written above to view.
Guess it later or guess it now;
Nothing's old made new.
"God", you say, is subject's issue,
Whether you laugh or cry?
Well it's love I give, in a subject's fashion,
A subject as mine, no lie.

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Jones v. Davis: An Update

Posted by Courtney Minick on September 9th, 2015

Last July, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a ruling in Jones v. Davis that found California’s death penalty unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge Cormac Carney wrote that delays in the capital sentencing scheme were so excessive that they resulted in an arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty - which violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

California’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, appealed this decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and a three judge panel there heard oral arguments on Aug. 31. The panel will now convene and issue a ruling, though the timing is unclear.

The arguments in the appeal are fairly technical - they turn on whether the convicted man (Jones) exhausted his remedies in state court before presenting them to a federal judge. The legal doctrine of “exhaustion” requires him to present all of his arguments to state courts before entering the federal courts. In the Jones case, the state (represented by the Attorney General) argued that Jones failed to present this argument - that the delays violate the 8th Amendment - to the state court, and therefore the federal district court could not rule on it.

When Mr. Jones presented his appeal to the federal district court, Judge Carney ordered both parties to brief him on whether and why the system of capital punishment in California is constitutional. The judge then ruled on the basis of those briefs. The state argues that because those arguments were not first presented in its courts, they are not exhausted, and cannot be heard on appeal. The state wants the Ninth Circuit to send the case back to the California Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Mr. Jones argue that the state waived exhaustion when it submitted its arguments to the lower federal court. Waiver means that the state agreed to bypass a hearing in its own court, and they cannot now demand to be heard on that issue. Jones also argues that even if waiver did not occur, he is entitled to an exemption from exhaustion, because they state remedy is ineffective. The California Supreme Court takes years to issue decisions in death penalty appeals, and sending the matter back will only compound the delays that, under the lower court ruling, violate the Eighth Amendment.

The panel now retires to make its decision. There are several possible outcomes. The justices could find that Judge Carney’s decision was incorrect, and reinstate the sentence for Mr. Jones. Alternatively, the court could order that Mr. Jones present his arguments to the California Supreme Court (exhaust his remedies there), which would bring him back into federal court making these arguments again in four or five years. The most thrilling possibility, but one that is more unlikely, is that the panel would affirm the decision, leaving Judge Carney’s ruling to stand. A finding by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has the potential to apply to all of California’s death row inmates, and would effectively invalidate the state’s death penalty scheme.

If the panel affirms the lower court ruling, the state will most certainly appeal its way up to the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, California’s executions will remain on hold. Pending litigation of this magnitude is likely to forestall judges from issuing death warrants.

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Abolitionist of the Month: Jimmy Carter

Posted by Mary Kate DeLucco on September 9th, 2015

“It is clear that there are overwhelming ethical, financial, and religious reasons to abolish the death penalty,” former president Jimmy Carter wrote in a 2012 op-ed titled “Show Death Penalty the Door” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Long considered by historians as one of the greatest ex-presidents in American history for his work in human rights, global health issues and promoting world peace, Carter’s opposition to the death penalty might seem unsurprising. Yet, his abolitionist stance has evolved over the past 42 years, transforming him from death penalty advocate into a staunch opponent.

In 1973, while serving as governor of Georgia, Carter played an instrumental role in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the moratorium on the death penalty it imposed a year earlier. He did this by signing into law guidelines for applying the death penalty that met the court’s criteria for constitutional executions in the case Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. And with that case, the national moratorium on executions was lifted.

At a national death penalty symposium sponsored by the Carter Center and the American Bar Association in 2013, Carter said, “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.”

In an interview with the Guardian that same year, Carter said he wanted the Supreme Court to look at the “totality of the death penalty once again” and “rule that it is cruel and unusual punishment, which would make it prohibitive under the U.S. constitution.”

Carter’s about-face on the constitutionality and morality of the death penalty mirrors a shift in public opinion in the United States. For years, the great majority of Americans supported capital punishment, but the tide has shifted in recent years, with support steadily decreasing. Polls released in April by Pew Research Center and CBS News both reported that 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty -- the lowest ever recorded by CBS, and one of the lowest reported by Pew in the last 40 years.

But Carter, a former president and former governor of a Southern state, as well as the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, is one of the most prominent public figures to call for abolition. It’s a courageous stance, one not many American politicians are willing to take. But Carter has spent his life taking a stand on what he believes to be right, not what is politically expedient.

“I think any time a person concedes error on a very contentious issue it takes courage. It’s easier to stick with what you’ve said or done than admit you were wrong. I give him a lot of credit for being willing to step up to the plate and admit he was wrong back then,” says Stanford Law Professor John J. Donohue III.

In 1980, Donohue wrote what he calls a “very critical” article about Georgia’s death penalty law and of the Georgia Supreme Court, which he describes as having been a “rubber stamp for the death penalty” at the time. The article, “Godfrey v. Georgia: Creative Federalism, the Eighth Amendment, and the Evolving Law of Death,” appeared in the Catholic University Law Review.

He says of Carter, “He was one of the first through the door in getting a new death penalty statute amended that became the model for other states to meet the requirements set by the U.S. Supreme Court for having a constitutional death penalty.”

So Carter’s admission, 40 years later, that he was wrong, resonates strongly with Donohue.
“His expression of regret enables others to realize you can look back, revisit and do better,” he says. And he believes that Carter’s call for abolition will reverberate among an important group of people. “Given his religious background and southern white heritage, he has the ability to change the minds of southern white males and evangelicals,” he says.

Carter turns 91 this year, and recently disclosed that he has liver cancer, which has spread to his brain. He announced the diagnosis at a press conference, at which he displayed the same calm and courage that has defined his public life.

“Of cowards no history is written,” goes an old English proverb. The written history of Jimmy Carter will be long indeed.

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Arkansas Attorney General Eager to Start Killing

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 2nd, 2015

While many states have stopped executions and public support for capital punishment continues to decline, the southern state of Arkansas plans to move forward after a 10-year break.

Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has asked Governor Asa Hutchinson (former director of the DEA) to set execution dates for eight death row inmates “as quickly as possible.”

The state approved a new lethal injection protocol in August which includes the three drugs midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Officials then purchased the drugs from an unknown source. A state secrecy law allows the Department of Corrections to shield the name of the drug supplier.

The drug midazolam was used in botched executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma. Despite concerns about whether the drug is constitutional, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge and approved its continued use.

In April, attorney Jeff Rosenzweig filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the drug secrecy law. He says the men should not be executed before it is resolved.

There are currently 34 inmates on death row in Arkansas.

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California's Death Penalty Back on Trial

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The Ernest Dewayne Jones v. Ron Davis case will return to court on Aug. 31 when a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the appeal by Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Jones, an inmate on California’s death row, had his sentence vacated last July. US District Judge Cormac Carney ruled the state’s death penalty is unconstitutional, saying unpredictable delays caused by the system amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

“The dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution,” Carney wrote. “As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

Harris appealed that ruling and argued the process provides necessary protection to defendants.

In March, several organizations including Death Penalty Focus submitted amicus briefs rebutting the attorney general’s argument. Our brief demonstrates that many death row inmates are denied their right to due process by the delays and their families suffer with them. It is estimated that for every death sentence, eight family members are profoundly affected. They 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.

A brief filed by Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (“MVFR”) and California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (“CCV”) argued that the process complicates grieving, hinders healing and wastes money that could be spent on law enforcement to help solve murders.

A brief by Loyola Law School’s Alarcon Advocacy Center argues that delays caused by the state’s inability to appoint counsel in capital cases are not by design and do not further prompt and fair review. “Congestion, backlogs, and delays in the administration of California’s death penalty have compromised the system to such an extent that the system as a whole has broken down and can no longer satisfy constitutional demands or the “[f]undamental principles of due process and just punishment [which] demand that any punishment, let alone the ultimate one of execution, be timely and rationally carried out,” the brief states.

The current average of 30 years will soon reach 40 and 500 more inmates will die naturally before the courts rule on their cases. Executions have been suspended at San Quentin for nearly a decade while the state with the largest death row continues to sentence people.

Watch a live stream of the oral arguments.

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Connecticut Abolishes the Death Penalty and Closes Death Row

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Connecticut’s Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty violates the state constitution. The ruling, on Thursday, August 13, blocks the state from executing the 11 inmates currently on death row there.

Connecticut enacted a law in 2012 that abolished the death penalty for any crimes committed after the date that the law was passed. But abolition did not apply retroactively, meaning that the 11 prisoners already sentenced to die could still have been executed. The Connecticut Supreme Court has now removed the possibility of execution for current death row inmates by ruling that the death penalty "no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.”

"For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment," Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the majority.

Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy issued a statement Thursday saying those who have been on death row will spend the rest of their lives in state prisons without the possibility of parole.

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Attorneys for death row inmates ask the Supreme Court to rehear the case.

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Not long after the Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s use of the controversial lethal injection drug midazolam, the state set execution dates for the three plaintiffs in the case.

The June ruling and the scheduled killings could have easily been seen as a setback for the movement to end the death penalty but instead lawyers for the death row inmates responded to a call from Justice Stephen Breyer to order a full briefing on the constitutionality of the death penalty.

In a 40-page dissent to the Glossip v. Gross ruling, Justice Breyer joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited three fundamental defects: serious unreliability, arbitrariness and delays that undermine the penological purpose.

“Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time,” Breyer wrote, “I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”

The three men named in the case, Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole, illustrate many of the concerns cited by Justice Breyer.

Reliability and Innocence: Richard Glossip maintains he is innocent of the crime that landed him on death row. He was 33 with no criminal record when he was charged with the murder of his boss. It is undisputed that a 19-year-old maintenance worker committed the crime. But prosecutors said Glossip paid the teen to do it. The only evidence came from the killer who agreed to testify against Glossip. The entire case hinged on that testimony. Mistakes are possible and that can be proven by the more than 100 people were totally exonerated of the crime they were charged with.

Arbitrariness and Mitigation: John Grant was defended by a lawyer who was new to the bar, self-medicating and married and divorced to her co counsel in Grant’s case. She later resigned after being suspended from practice. She lacked the resources experience and judgment to present the relevant mitigating evidence to support a case for a life sentence, according to the filing. Since then, judges who have reviewed the case have said the inexperienced counsel had an effect on the jury’s decision.

Delay and Dehumanization: Benjamin Cole’s confinement illustrates the dehumanizing effect of a lengthy term of solitary confinement. He has been on death row for over 10 years, underground housing with windowless cells. He has paranoid schizophrenia and his illness has worsened without treatment and been exacerbated by the isolation on death row. Due to his illness, he has never been capable of “meaningful conferring with any of the attorneys who have attempted to represent him,” the suit states.

The court has not ruled on the constitutionality of the death penalty since 1976. We hope they take this opportunity to reconsider. Glossip is scheduled to die on September 16.

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Breyer's Powerful Death Penalty Dissent

Posted by Stephen Rohde on July 16th, 2015

This article originally appeared in the

Daily Journal.

In U.S. Supreme Court history, a few powerful dissenting opinions have eventually won over a majority of the court. In Glossip v. Gross, 2015 DJDAR 7481 (June 29, 2015), Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a powerful dissenting opinion on the death penalty that presented compelling reasons why capital punishment violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Depending on the court’s makeup after the 2016 election, Breyer’s dissent may well become the law of the land.

In 1976, the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty under state statutes that attempted to set forth safeguards to ensure the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily. But Breyer found that the “circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty’s application have changed radically since then.” The court thought that the constitutional infirmities in the death penalty could be healed. But, according to Breyer, almost “40 years of studies, surveys, and experience strongly indicate … this effort has failed.” “Today’s administration of the death penalty,” Breyer said, “involves three fundamental constitutional defects: (1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose. Perhaps as a result, (4) most places within the United States have abandoned its use.”

Cruel: Unreliability. Breyer found “increasing evidence” that the death penalty lacks reliability. Researchers “have found convincing evidence that, in the past three decades, innocent people have been executed.” Breyer cites the shameful examples of Carlos DeLuna, Cameron Todd Willingham, Joe Arridy and William Jackson Marion. As of 2002, there was evidence of approximately 60 exonerations in capital cases. Since then, the number of exonerations in capital cases has risen to 115 and may be as high as 154. In 2014, six death row inmates were exonerated based on actual innocence. All had been imprisoned for over 30 years.

Including instances in which courts failed to follow legally required procedures, the numbers soar. Between 1973 and 1995, courts found prejudicial errors in an astounding 68 percent of the capital cases. For Breyer, the research suggests “there are too many instances in which courts sentence defendants to death without complying with the necessary procedures; and they suggest that, in a significant number of cases, the death sentence is imposed on a person who did not commit the crime.”

Cruel: Arbitrariness. As Breyer puts it, the “arbitrary imposition of punishment is the antithesis of the rule of law.” In 1976, the Supreme Court acknowledged that it is unconstitutional if “inflicted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.” Despite the court’s hope for fair administration of the death penalty, Breyer concludes it has become “increasingly clear that the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily, i.e., without the ‘reasonable consistency’ legally necessary to reconcile its use with the Constitution’s commands.”

Breyer cites various studies and concludes that “whether one looks at research indicating that irrelevant or improper factors—such as race, gender, local geography, and resources—do significantly determine who receives the death penalty, or whether one looks at research indicating that proper factors—such as ‘egregiousness’—do not determine who receives the death penalty, the legal conclusion must be the same: The research strongly suggests that the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily.” Breyer concludes that the “imposition and implementation of the death penalty seems capricious, random, indeed, arbitrary.”

Cruel: Excessive delays. Breyer found the problems of reliability and unfairness lead to a third independent constitutional problem: excessively long periods of time that individuals typically spend on death row. In 2014, 35 individuals were executed. Those inmates spent an average of 18 years on death row. At present rates, it would take more than 75 years to carry out the death sentences of the 3,000 inmates on death row; thus, the average person on death row would spend an additional 37.5 years there before being executed.

These lengthy delays create two special constitutional difficulties. First, a lengthy delay in and of itself is especially cruel because it “subjects death row inmates to decades of especially severe, dehumanizing conditions of confinement.” Second, lengthy delay undermines the death penalty’s penological rationale.

Breyer explained that the death penalty’s penological rationale rests almost exclusively upon deterrence and retribution. But Breyer asks: Does it still seem likely that the death penalty has a significant deterrent effect? He considers what actually happened to the 183 inmates sentenced to death in 1978. As of 2013, 38 (or 21 percent) had been executed; but 132 (or 72 percent) had had their convictions or sentences overturned or commuted; and 7 (or 4 percent) had died of other causes. Six (or 3 percent) remained on death row. Of the 8,466 inmates under a death sentence at some point between 1973 and 2013, 16 percent were executed but 42 percent had their convictions or sentences overturned or commuted, and 6 percent died by other causes; the remainder (35 percent) are still on death row.

To speed up executions, Breyer asks which constitutional protections we should eliminate. He poses the dilemma: “A death penalty system that seeks procedural fairness and reliability brings with it delays that severely aggravate the cruelty of capital punishment and significantly undermine the rationale for imposing a sentence of death in the first place. But a death penalty system that minimizes delays would undermine the legal system’s efforts to secure reliability and procedural fairness.”

Breyer is clear. “We cannot have both. And that simple fact … strongly supports the claim that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.” Unusual: Decline in Use. The Eighth Amendment forbids punishments that are cruel and unusual. Breyer points out that between 1986 and 1999, 286 persons on average were sentenced to death each year. But approximately 15 years ago, the numbers began to decline. In 1999, 98 people were executed. Last year, just 73 persons were sentenced to death and 35 were executed. The number of death penalty states has fallen, too. In 1972, the death penalty was lawful in 41 states. As of today, 19 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. In 11 other states where the death penalty is on the books, no execution has taken place in over eight years. Of the 20 states that have conducted at least one execution in the past eight years, 9 have conducted fewer than five in that time, making an execution in those states a fairly rare event.

That leaves 11 states in which it is fair to say that capital punishment is not “unusual.” And just three (Texas, Missouri and Florida) accounted for 80 percent of executions nationwide (28 of the 35) in 2014. Indeed, last year, only seven states conducted an execution. In other words, in 43 States, no one was executed. If we ask how many Americans live in a state that at least occasionally carries out an execution (at least one within the prior three years), the answer two decades ago was 60 to 70 percent. Today, it’s 33 percent.

Breyer concludes that the matters he has discussed, “such as lack of reliability, the arbitrary application of a serious and irreversible punishment, individual suffering caused by long delays, and lack of penological purpose are quintessentially judicial matters. They concern the infliction — indeed the unfair, cruel and unusual infliction — of a serious punishment upon an individual.”

Consequently, the Supreme Court is “left with a judicial responsibility” and it has made clear that “the Constitution contemplates that in the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.”

Breyer’s authoritative dissent may have set the stage for ending state killing once and for all. And it may have its most immediate impact on Aug. 31, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears oral argument in Jones v Chappell, in which last year U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney found California’s death penalty unconstitutional for many of the very same reasons Breyer has so cogently expressed.

Stephen Rohde, an author and constitutional lawyer, is immediate past chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, vice president of Death Penalty Focus, and national chair of Bend the Arc, a Jewish Partnership for Justice.

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Guest Column by Robyn Barbour

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At 8:00 when the late bell rings, my class of sixteen numbers a mere nine students. I take roll on my phone, and my students write their journal responses based on a prompt on the board. The students are a mix of white, Latino and black. Almost all are freshmen because this is a freshman English class, but I expect a junior who is redoing ninth-grade English to appear shortly – and he does. He tends to be fashionably late. As soon as they have finished their journal, the girls start shouting at each other across the room. They aren’t angry; they’re animated. They talk about girl drama and boy drama. They use terms that were unfamiliar to me – left hand, right hand, backbone, BAE -- but they took the time to teach me their language and now I understand. They like that I put in the effort.

Seven minutes into class, two more girls come in carrying Starbucks. One asks me to put her Frappucino in my minifridge, which I do. I’ve already erased the journal prompt, and we’ve started working on a grammar assignment. They each get a sheet from me and they fall into the familiar pattern of going over the instructions, doing a few examples, and then working together or as a group on the rest of the sheet. This day the lesson is on apostrophes. Some of them didn’t know what the comma-looking things were called, and most of them thought they were used to make words plural.

Five minutes later, two boys come in. They also pick up the grammar from me, and sit next to the girls who usually do their work and who usually pay attention to my instructions. Halfway through the class, we’re still missing two kids, and they’re almost never there before the last ten minutes. These are not bad kids. They’re not lazy or stupid or dangerous. Their parents work or are overwhelmed by the ravages of not working – poverty, homelessness, drug use to dull the shame. These kids have to parent themselves, and I know there are mornings when I myself have a hard time not hitting snooze until it gives up.
When I first started working at this school and heard the stories my kids told or wrote about - mental health issues, undiagnosed learning disabilities, illiteracy into high school, incarcerated parents and/or siblings, abuse, foster care – it gave me a strange sense of déjà vu. This is exactly what I kept hearing when learning about death-row inmates. You see, in my spare time I am on the board of Death Penalty Focus and many of my fellow board members work with people incarcerated at San Quentin. Given the stories, many of the men and women imprisoned at San Quentin face some of the same issues as my students.

Even though I teach sixth through ninth graders, roughly ages 12 through 15, some of my kids have already entered the system. One of my girls has a probation officer because she was with a friend who started a fire in a bathroom. “Arson” is emblazoned on her juvenile record because she was caught on camera leaving the bathroom. Having already gained a reputation as being a wild child, it was easy for people to believe that she would light a fire in a trash can. She said she didn’t do it and I believed her. That surprised her. And it made her really happy.

I started teaching at this school two years ago. It isn’t easy, but I loved it from the first day. All the influences that contribute to people going down the path to prison are writ large in these lives and they make my kids challenging to teach. But experience tells me that given structure and love and patience they can be as successful as anyone at a more affluent school. I know this because for ten of my twenty-five years in the classroom, I taught at those affluent schools.

Any demographic analysis of prisons, death row in particular, will show you disproportionate numbers of people of color, people who didn’t finish high school, people with mental health issues, people who are functionally illiterate. They’ll be people who were abused, who were abandoned, who somehow slipped through the cracks and were left with few alternatives to lives of crime and violence. These are my kids, and every one of my colleagues fights like hell to divert them from the destiny their life to this point seems to funnel them toward. We see ourselves as the pipeline to college rather than prison, to better lives rather than continuing the cycle their parents have become trapped in. Every member of the staff at this school has many jobs beyond the one he or she is paid to do, because we don’t give up on our kids as they expect us to do, as so many have done.

So my kids show up late. That they show up is what counts. So they sometimes opt not to come to English at eight in the morning. They show up eventually, and they ask for make-up work. Sometimes they come in at lunch, sometimes after school. And they do these things not because they believe in themselves – yet – but because they begin to get the idea that someone cares about them and wants them to have a shot at a life.

Education is expensive, but more money for counselors, for training, for diversion programs and for “mental health” days might obviate the need for as many prison cells. Every one of the kids I work with could end up in “the system,” but once they see there are other possibilities out there, they get that it’s not inevitable.

As for those who have already been through that pipeline, those for whom no one intervened, those who will live behind bars until the state puts an end to the hope they once represented, we can only ask why something wasn’t done to provide other options.

But the future is not set for my kids.

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In Memoriam

Posted by on July 10th, 2015

We are greatly saddened to learn of the passing of Myron Dale “Doc” Miller on June 6th in Davis, California. Mr. Miller was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and generously supported our work over many years.

Doc pursued a life of service, volunteering for the Army Air Corps as a recent high school graduate in the middle of World War II. He became a pilot, rising to the rank of Colonel, and flew for 30 years in war and peace time. During the Vietnam engagement, he commanded a rescue squadron with four airplanes and 12 pararescue men who parachuted into the sea and combat zones on rescue missions. He also flew around the world several times, piloting jet transports and stopping at airports that served US Embassies in India, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, Spain and other countries.

After retiring from the Air Force, Doc completed his undergraduate and law degrees at UC Davis and began a 20 year legal career devoted to representing indigents in criminal appeals. His many contributions to improving the world around him will be long remembered. Doc was loved and admired by his many friends, colleagues and family, and by those of who were encouraged and inspired by his generosity.

We send our deepest sympathy to Doc’s daughter, Vicky Sargent and grandsons Austin Sargent and Alden Sargent, and to his longtime companion and best friend, Sarah Taylor.

A memorial service for Doc will be held on Saturday, July 18, 2015, at 10 a.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis, 27074 Patwin Road, Davis. In lieu of flowers, Doc’s family asks that donations be made to Death Penalty Focus, c/o Mike Farrell, 5 Third St., Suite 725, San Francisco, CA 94103.

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In Memoriam

Posted by on July 2nd, 2015

We are greatly saddened to learn that Pamela Krasney, a former DPF board member and long-time activist against the death penalty, passed away on June 9th at her home in Sausalito.

Pam was a lifelong opponent of the death penalty and made many valuable contributions to DPF and the anti death penalty movement. She was particularly dedicated to San Quentin Death Row inmate Jarvis Masters, whom she visited regularly over the past eighteen years.

As a Tibetan Buddhist and member of the Shambhala Community, she embraced many causes and tirelessly pursued projects to improve the world around her, especially for those unfairly treated by the criminal justice system. Pam was active in Human Rights Watch and served on the board of the Prison Mindfulness Institute. We are forever grateful for her dedication.

We send our deepest sympathies to Pam’s husband, Marty Krasney, and to her children and grandchildren.

Abolitionist of the Month Ernie Chambers

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Ernie Chambers does not give up.

Nearly 45 years ago, right after he won a seat in the Nebraska State Senate, he first introduced a bill to repeal the death penalty. He didn’t hesitate to take on the formidable task of abolishing an almost 150-year-old law in a conservative state in the heart of the country.

“I have an obligation. I have a charge to keep. I don’t get tired. I won’t sell out. I won’t be bought out,” Chambers said during a recent phone interview.

For the next 40 years, Chambers introduced a similar bill to repeal Nebraska's capital punishment law at the start of each legislative session, a total of 38 times. In 1979, the bill was passed by the Legislature but was vetoed by then-Governor Charles Thone. Undeterred, Chambers introduced it at the next session, and the next, and the next....

Ask Chambers what propelled him to try, again and again, to repeal the death penalty and he explains it was a determination forged by a lifelong belief that killing another human being, no matter what the circumstances, is just plain wrong.

“Since I was first conscious of the difference between right and wrong, I have been opposed to the death penalty. My argument is simple: Nobody should kill anybody. And killing someone as punishment is the most barbaric act of all,” he says.

Chambers, who was born in 1937, has been fighting injustice his entire life. An Omaha native, he was often the only black child in a white classroom. He tells of having to listen to his white teacher read Little Black Sambo,a children’s book with descriptions and illustrations of African-Americans so derogatory, it was banned from libraries and schools in the 1970s. He sat in silence while the white kids laughed. It was an experience, he says, that “bothers me to this day.”

Chambers earned his undergraduate degree at Creighton University in Omaha in 1959, and a law degree from Creighton University School of Law in 1979, but because he refuses to join the Nebraska State Bar Association, he has never practiced law.

“I refused to join the Bar because I paid my way through law school,” he says. “Why should I have to pay the Nebraska State Bar Association dues for the right to practice law when I already earned that right by graduating from law school?”

He was fired from the Omaha Post Office in the early 1960s for insubordination after complaining that managers referred to black employees as “boys.” When the Postmaster General gave a speech in Omaha, Chambers picketed it with a sign that read, “I spoke against discrimination in the Omaha Post Office and was fired.”

He became a public figure in 1966 after race riots broke out in Omaha. Acting as a spokesperson for the community, Chambers helped defuse the tension, and subsequently led a citizens’ group that worked to improve relations between residents of North Omaha and the police.

He was working as a barber in the 1960s when he first ran for public office, once for the Omaha School Board and once for the City Council. He lost both times.

In 1970, he was elected to represent North Omaha's 11th District, and was reelected for the next 34 years, becoming in 2005, Nebraska’s longest-serving state senator. Term limits passed by Nebraska voters in 2000 meant he couldn’t run again for four years, which he did in 2012, winning by a landslide.

Chambers has also unsuccessfully run for the U.S. Senate and for governor of Nebraska.

Asked if he still has aspirations for higher office, Chambers is definite. “No, no, no. I’m where I belong.”

And where he belongs is in Nebraska, fighting for the causes he believes in.
“I’ve always felt an obligation to protect those on the outside, the ones who are weak or frightened,” he says. And it was that sense of obligation that fueled his successful drive to halt the execution of juveniles and the intellectually disabled in Nebraska in 1982, ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court's nationwide ban.

“Every time I saw an opening, I took it,” he says.

In late May, Chambers finally prevailed. First, by a vote of 32 to 15, the unicameral Nebraska Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, replacing it with the option of a life sentence without parole. Republican Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill, and less than a week later, the legislature overrode his veto by a vote of 30 to 19, the minimum number needed. With that vote, Nebraska became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty. The 10 men on Nebraska’s Death Row were granted a reprieve, and will serve life sentences without parole.

But the battle may not be over. In the wake of the override, Republican Senator Beau McCoy of Omaha announced he would organize an effort to get an initiative on the state ballot next year giving Nebraska voters the option of reinstating the death penalty.

Ernie Chambers is ready.

“I don’t feel the battle is won,” he says. “None of that worries me. I’ve always had the expectation that the battle will go on.”

Supreme Court Ruling Sets Clock Ticking

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on June 29th, 2015

The Supreme Court ruled today in a 5-4 decision that the drug midazolam is constitutional for use as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection formula. The decision is troubling after a botched execution in Oklahoma clearly showed the experimental drug creates an intolerable risk of harm.

In addition, it is dreadful news for California, the state with the nation’s largest death row. Earlier this month in a settlement agreement with death penalty advocates, Governor Jerry Brown agreed to unveil a one-drug protocol within 120 days of the decision, meaning killing in California could resume within months.

In California, the death penalty has been on hold since 2006 when a federal judge found the three-drug protocol was unconstitutional. When a new protocol is introduced, there are bound to be legal challenges and additional costs to California taxpayers in addition to the millions we already spend on appeals and housing.

When the process is approved, a minimum of 17 people who have exhausted their appeals will immediately be eligible for execution. Instead of wasting more time and money to try to come up with a new way to kill prisoners, we need to end the death penalty system.

Texas Man Freed from Death Row

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Alfred Brown, who was sentenced to die in 2005, was released Monday after more than a dozen years behind bars. The Court of Criminal Appeals threw out his conviction and death sentence in November after ruling that his defense team was not given evidence that could have supported his alibi at trial.

Yesterday, District Attorney Devon Anderson said she was dismissing the case, because she didn't have enough evidence to convict him at a new trial.

"We re-interviewed all the witnesses. We looked at all the evidence and we're coming up short," Anderson said. "We cannot prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore the law demands that I dismiss this case and release Mr. Brown."

After he walked out of prison a free man, Brown compared life behind bars to being in a dog kennel. Hardest to bear, he said, was being away from his family, including his now 14-year-old daughter.

He becomes the 154th person freed from Death Row.

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Conservative Nebraska Abolishes Death Penalty

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Legislators on Wednesday voted 30-19 to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska, making it the first Republican-led state to abolish capital punishment in more than 40 years.

In California, Ron Briggs, a conservative Republican who, with his father John Briggs, led the 1978 initiative that reintroduced the death penalty in the Golden State, is now active in the campaign to end it.

“The death penalty is the ultimate failed big government program,” said Briggs, a former El Dorado County Supervisor. “Nowhere is that more true than in California, which has the largest and most dysfunctional death penalty system in America. It’s time that conservatives who don’t trust the government to run their lives stop trusting the government to decide who dies.”

In addition to concerns about big government, conservative opposition to the death penalty stems from religious values that protect life, the high cost of capital punishment, the expanding list of proven wrongful convictions, and the fact that it does not deter people from committing crime.

The repeal in Nebraska is part of a movement nationwide to abandon the practice and signals a growing concern among conservatives about the death penalty. Republicans are leading repeal efforts in at least a half dozen states nationwide including Kentucky and Wyoming.

A majority of Americans now prefer a sentence of life in prison. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2014 Year End Report, the country saw the lowest number of death sentences handed down in 40 years and the lowest number of executions in 20 years. Though California still houses the largest Death Row in the country, a Field Poll last year found that support for the death penalty was falling rapidly, with voters’ support at its lowest point in half a century.

Nebraska is now the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, while eight other states have abandoned it in practice.

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Tsarnaev verdict shows three fatal flaws of death penalty

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on May 20th, 2015

On May 15, we learned that a Boston federal jury had returned a penalty verdict of death for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who with his older brother Tamerlan was convicted of the Boston Marathon bombings. Certainly the crimes of Tsarnaev and his elder brother, who was killed in a shootout with police four days later, were horrible. The two bombs near the finish line at the Marathon killed three people and maimed hundreds. The horrible wounds and amputations inflicted and the spectacle of the most powerful government in the world attempting to execute a boy who was only 19 at the time of the crimes, have aroused special emotion. However, we must remember that the main issue here is the death penalty itself, and the harm and trauma it inflicts on all it touches, like those bombs.

Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, who played an instrumental leadership role in his state's abolition of the death penalty in 2013, offered some comments about the Tsarnaev verdict that show us how to move forward. Expressing respect for the jury, and offering his prayers for the victims and their families, he focused both on the needs of victims and on the death penalty as a violation of human rights. Before considering Governor O'Malley's points about harm to victims and human rights, let's address an issue that grows out of his reminder that the jurors themselves deserve our respect: the way that the death penalty puts these jurors in an unfair position and harms them also.

1. Cruel and unusual punishment -- for the jurors

First, we should consider that the jurors were unable to adequately represent their community and became victims of a bad system. Massachusetts itself is a strongly abolitionist state, with the last execution in 1947 and abolition in 1984. In Boston, this sentiment is even stronger, with only 25 percent of those polled favoring the death penalty in any case, and only 15 percent for Tsarnaev.

However, Tsarnaev was prosecuted under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, meaning the judge could exclude anyone unwilling to vote for capital punishment. A jury so selected simply could not represent the conscience of the community against whom the bombings had been directed. Nor is this problem new in Massachusetts. A minority report of a Committee on Capital Punishment of the State's House of Representatives, in 1848, observed:

"In Massachusetts, there is notoriously an increasing disinclination to convict, even though jurors are _packed_ as they are, by a most cruel policy, against the prisoner. In the present state of public feeling, every man who has scruples about capital punishment being of course excluded from the jury, and all of humane feelings avoiding, if possible, sitting on a capital case, jurors in capital trials are almost necessarily made up of the hard-hearted -- those who have almost prejudged the case; and yet, even in Massachusetts, either through the partiality of the jury, or the clemency of the executive, it is some years since the death-penalty has been inflicted."

Given the thankless task of speaking for a community they could not truly represent, the jurors were traumatized in two special ways. First, they were asked by the prosecution to overcome their natural instinct against killing, a process which can do immense and enduring psychological harm. Secondly, while any murder trial with its autopsy reports and reliving of gruesome and tragic scenes must be an ordeal for jurors, the logic of the death penalty here made it even worse.

To overcome the reluctance of the jurors to kill a teenager who had no previous criminal record, and since his arrest had been a peaceful prisoner, the prosecution saturated both phases of the trial with gory images, videos, and detailed medical testimony about the effects of the bombs on the victims. This went far beyond the evidence needed to prove the crimes and demonstrate the horrible nature of these explosive devices with their nails and shrapnel.

Without the death penalty, a trial of Tsarnaev in either state or federal court would have been faster and simpler. The prosecution would have produced overwhelming evidence of the defendant's liability for all four murders, either directly or by aiding and abetting his brother, and the jury would have found him guilty as charged. He would have been sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) -- case closed!

2. Cruel and unusual punishment -- for the victims

As Governor O'Malley pointed out, "the appeals process is expensive and cruel to the surviving family members." He knows well, because murder survivors were central both to abolition in Maryland, and in the subsequent effort fulfilling the Governor's promise that funds saved by abolition would be directed to victims services.

After Tsarnaev was convicted in April of the four murders, some of the victims spoke publicly in favor of dropping the death penalty and negotiating a plea agreement to give him LWOP. Most memorably, the family of Martin Richard wrote the Boston Globe to ask that the legal process end without years of death penalty appeals, which would place Tsarnaev in the limelight to reopen their wounds.

Murder survivors with various views on the death penalty itself have drawn the same conclusion either about their own personal needs, or more broadly about what policy is in the interest of victims generally. Thus the family of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998, preferred a plea agreement for LWOP with no appeals as best meeting their desires for healing, although they are not opposed to the death penalty. Victim and advocate Kathy Garcia is not opposed in principle to capital punishment, but has championed its abolition in States such as New Jersey (2007) and Illinois (2011) because of the immense harm she has seen it do to victims.

Many other survivors, of course, are against the death penalty in principle; but this is an area where people with different views can unite in seeing that LWOP is a better practical solution to give the Richard family and others in their situation a space for privacy, dignity, and healing.

Although the wishes of the Richard family were not followed, President Obama could step in and end their ordeal of being trapped in years of appeals and publicity for Tsarnaev.

Prosecutors argued that, if sentenced to LWOP, Tsarnaev might have his conditions of confinement eased over the years. However, under the Supreme Court decision in Schick v. Reed (1974), the President has the power to modify a death sentence to life on any terms. Within the limits of the Eighth Amendment, it appears that President Obama has virtually unlimited discretion in setting the terms of the LWOP sentence that would replace the death penalty.

Also, federal funds saved by not pursuing years of appeals could be directed to assisting the victims of the bombings, many of whom have ongoing medical issues and dilemmas. That would be a worthy national response to this saga of tragedy and community resilience.

3. Human rights: The company we keep

Governor O'Malley also reminded us that the death penalty for Tsarnaev puts us in the company of the other nations where "the vast majority" of executions happen: North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and China. One might add Saudi Arabia; and also the Islamic State as a reminder of how legal or extrajudicial executions are a hallmark of precisely the terrorism that we seek to counter.

In the course of his remarks, the Governor offered a familiar truth applying to capital crimes generally: "The death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent." However, that truth applies with special force to terrorist crimes, where the terrorists may either themselves seek death, or may be ready to die if they are unable to escape.

In our imperfect world, although we may be unable totally to abolish murder and terrorism, we do have the power both drastically to reduce their frequency and to limit their moral domain. Let the killing of subdued prisoners be a trademark of tyrants and terrorists, as opposed to responsible governments.

Margo Schulter was born in Los Angeles in 1950 and became a committed death penalty abolitionist shortly after the execution of Caryl Chessman in 1960. Since 1977, as a non-attorney, she has taken a special interest in legal and constitutional issues concerning the death penalty, with an emphasis on historical aspects. From time to time, she guest blogs for DPF.

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