Michael Millman accepts "Lifetime Achievement Award"
Posted by on May 7th, 2014
|Photo by Matthew Millman|
At the 23rd Annual Awards Dinner on April 15, 2014, Death Penalty Focus presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Michael Millman. Michael Millman has been the executive director of the California Appellate Project for the past 30 years, where he has demonstrated unwavering commitment to providing high quality representation to indigent people on death row.
Michael Millman is also a founding member of Death Penalty Focus and has continued to serve on our advisory board. He is a close friend and hero to many, and the Lifetime Achievement Award could not go to a more worthy person.
Below are Michael Millman's acceptance remarks from the Awards Dinner, which were read by Jonathan Steiner, the executive director of CAP/LA. The audience was incredibly moved by his statement, and we think you will be as well.
When I received Mike Farrell’s email telling me that I had won this amazing award, I broke into tears for two reasons: Why me? And Why now?
Why these feelings? I had just been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
I did not think I would even be able to attend this dinner. Now I would have to give an acceptance speech – which blessedly, will be short.
So how did I end up here tonight?
Because of Susan Kwan, who we also honor here this evening. The day before Mike’s email arrived, I went to a wonderful celebration of Susan’s life at the Presidio in San Francisco. Some of you here tonight were there.
We heard about Susan, and her life’s work was described and praised: that we live to do good things for other people because we want to do them; that she left us a legacy of believing in the worth of all people; that her work was not about her, but about making life better for others. As Bob Sanger said that afternoon, "Our job is to leave the world a better place."
The Sunday morning many years ago that I learned my good friend attorney Brian Schechmeister had died of brain cancer, I ran down to St. Philip’s Church, a block away, to seek comfort in a spiritual setting.
"Our faith," the pastor said that morning, "we catch it from each other." To which I have come to add, ‘Our courage, our hopefulness, our strength, we catch them from each other."
I am here today because of Susan and in tribute to Susan. Susan, who worked at helping others until the last moments of her life. Susan, who persevered, despite her fatal illness. I can hear her saying, "Just accept the award, Michael. How can you not take it?"
I am also here today because of Ruth Steiner, Jon Steiner’s mother, and Margarita Rosenthal, who taught me how to die with courage and grace. It is from others that we learn how to live and how to die.
25 years ago we created Death Penalty Focus. Originally, we thought we would form a Lawyer’s Committee Against The Death Penalty, but we quickly realized lawyers are not where it’s at. We needed to reach people, and to accomplish that, we needed a broad based coalition. The result was Death Penalty Focus. I am proud to say that for many years I was a member of the Board, and since then, I have remained as a member of the Advisory Board.
I’m a lawyer. I try to persuade people by appeals to the logic, the fairness, of the law. I have not been very successful. The California Supreme Court affirms virtually every capital case it decides. It finds there was no error in the trial proceedings, or that any possible error was harmless.
And yet, lawyers have played an important, constructive role by litigating death penalty cases as tenaciously as possible, case by case. We have not gone gentle into that good night. We do not roll over. We refuse to accept any case as "clearly a death case." Instead, we have tried to litigate every case as vigorously as we can. After all the litigation, all the money spent, and the almost 1,000 people sentenced to death, California has executed 13 people in the last 47 years.
We did that, and I am deeply honored to receive this award for the work my colleagues and I have done in litigating against the death penalty.
But that said, out courtroom work is not enough. We must have the political will to end the death penalty.
Recent reports from the Death Penalty Information Center chronicle the declining use of the death penalty in the United States and the striking reality that 2% of the counties in this country produce more than half of the death judgments. To me, this reflects our declining attachment to capital punishment. In truth, most people just don’t care that much about the death penalty, reflecting its marginal relevance to the realities of our life. Now is the time to capitalize on that declining popular will, to come forward with our determination.
Our commitment will overwhelm indifference and inertia. We have come so far. We are so close.
"How many deaths will it take till we know, that too many people have died?"
I had hoped, I had believed, that I would see the end of the death penalty in California in my lifetime. Now I know that probably will not happen, although I believe, b’emuna shlama, with absolute faith, that it will happen soon. And so I ask you to make it happen as quickly as you can. The death penalty is wrong. In
Reverend Glenda Hope’s unflinching words, "The death penalty is a sin."
A few years ago, with a little help from my children, I made a button that reads: "The America I believe in does not torture or execute people." The death penalty is not who we are, or at least, not who we should be.
So, please make a commitment to end the death penalty in California, or reaffirm the commitment you have already made. And please come up after these ceremonies to the CAP table and take one of these buttons – and wear it proudly.
And when you do finally end the death penalty in California, please be sure to send me an email to let me know that it is finally gone. I look forward to hearing The Good News.
Michael G. Millman,
March 15, 2014
Death Penalty Focus in the news
Posted by Matt Cherry on May 6th, 2014
When our government tries to draw a curtain over its mistakes, then it’s our job to pull the curtain back. In a democracy, that’s the only way to end the mistakes being made by our government in our name - we must bring them to public attention and demand action to end them.
Last week, we saw the government of Oklahoma literally draw a curtain to hide the writhing body of Clayton Lockett after they botched his execution. Although they tried to cover up their mistakes, we have been making sure the public stays focused on what went wrong.
As you can see from some of the media links below, Death Penalty Focus has been making sure that people not only hear about the horror show in Oklahoma, but also learn about the larger problems with the death penalty system.
One of those problems, according to a new study, is that 1 in 25 people sentenced to death is probably innocent. That’s more than 300 innocent people sentenced to death since 1976 - more than twice the number that have been officially exonerated and set free.
The news about executing innocents, along with the horrific display in Oklahoma, reveals how easy it is for the state to get the death penalty system wrong from beginning to end.
We made sure to remind the public of these fundamental problems in numerous media appearances. On Sunday alone, Death Penalty Focus had opinion pieces in both of California’s largest newspapers:
In a metaphoric sense, an execution requires each of us to look the killer in the eye and kick out the chair.
We insulate ourselves from this uncomfortable fact through distance. We assign the deed to others, minions of the state, who strap the convicted person into the electric chair or jab the needle into his or her arm. Continue reading...
-Mike Farrell, President, Death Penalty Focus
We also appeared on TV, for example, locally on KRON4 Bay Area News, and all across the Americas on NTN24 International TV (Spanish). And we spoke at length on radio shows across the country from Harlem, New York to Orange County, California.
We are out there speaking about this issue to represent you, the millions of people who will not stand for botched executions, wrongful convictions, and wasteful spending on something that does nothing to advance public safety or human dignity.
But we need your help to keep getting the message out about the problems with our death penalty system. We encourage you to share the above articles and news stories with your friends through social media or email.
You can also help financially. Your contribution will enable us to increase our media appearances and reach even more people.
Awards Dinner Breaks Its Fundraising Record by 500 Percent
Posted by on April 25th, 2014
Death Penalty Focus’s 23rd Annual Awards Dinner not only brought together stars, political leaders, and activists for a powerful and inspiring evening. It was also a huge fundraising success thanks to generous donations from the event’s guests and sponsors. In fact donations at the event were five times higher than the best previous fundraiser, which was just last year.
Honorable Mention Awardees and Exonerees at the 23rd Annual Awards Dinner
“The Awards Dinner provided us with powerful, sometimes shocking, reminders of why we must end the death penalty. It also showed our thanks to people who are doing so much to stop state killing. But none of this would be possible without the generosity of our donors,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. “This year’s dinner was exceptional in many ways. And our supporters rose to the occasion by making it a record-breaking fundraiser. We thank each and every person who sponsored, donated to, or attended the 23rd Annual Awards Dinner, and all those who could not attend but contributed to sponsor exonerees and law students. The success of the dinner means that we will be able to achieve even more in our work to end the death penalty.”
Inspired by a moving lineup of honorees and a generous $10,000 matching donation provided by DPF Board Members Ed Redlich and Sarah Timberman, dinner guests donated more than $20,000 on the night of the dinner, resulting in an evening total of more than $30,000. The evening’s fundraiser was the most successful in DPF’s history, netting over five times more than previous fundraisers.
Board Member Stephen Rohde stressed the importance of contributing to DPF's work.
The money raised on the night is only one part of the Awards Dinner fundraising. In advance of the event, DPF brought in $125,000 including sponsorships and advertisements! The total revenue of more than $155,000 makes the Awards Dinner the most important fundraising event of the year for Death Penalty Focus.
The event would not have been possible without the sponsorship of many generous individuals and organizations. Our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the following sponsors:
Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares
Ed Redlich and Sarah Timberman
Sherry and Leo Frumkin
Eugenie Ross-Leming and Robert Singer
Larry Flynt Publications
Fox Television Studios
Sue and Richard Wollack
All Saints Church
Diocese of San Bernardino
G.F. Bunting and Co.
Courtney Minick and Brandon Long
Chuck Blitz and Alison Allan
Clarke & Rice, A Professional Corporation
Nancy Cotton and John Given
Robert Greenwald and Heidi Frey
Mike Magnuson and Jack Cairl
Joan and Fred Nichols
Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange
Garland and Farrokh Allen
Richard E. Carlburg
Robert M. Myers
Thomas R. Parker and Karen Broumand
Mary and George Regas
Sanger, Swysen, and Dunkle
Abbey of New Clairvaux
Judith F. Blush
Mark and Marjorie Steinberg
Many other individuals, organizations, and companies also contributed to the dinner by purchasing space in the event’s program.
It is never too late to contribute, and guests who were unable to give at the event may still do so by visiting our donate page.
If you would like to support DPF’s efforts by making a general donation, please click here.
In Memory of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter
Posted by on April 23rd, 2014
On April 20th, 2014, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter passed away. Carter was a renowned professional boxer who fought for the world middleweight title in 1964. In 1966 he was wrongfully arrested and convicted of a triple murder. After finally winning his release, Carter became a tireless advocate for the wrongfully convicted and served as the Executive Director of the Association in Defense of of the Wrongly Convicted.
Rubin Carter was a longtime friend of Death Penalty Focus and a recipient of the Death Penalty Focus Abolition Award at our 1996 Annual Awards Dinner. We are honored to have known this inspiring man, and will remember his commitment to justice.
Much has been written about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, but Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic truly captured the spirit and commitment of Carter. Originally printed in The Atlantic, you can read the article below.
By Andrew Cohen
April 22, 2014
The wrongfully convicted boxer was a cause célèbre for the likes of Bob Dylan. But he built his true legacy after he was released from prison.
The New York Times rref=obituaries">obituary of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was long on detail about the man's grim upbringing, boxing prowess, and wrongful convictions, but dreadfully short on the many ways in which he spent the last decades of his life helping other exonerees. Of the 2,500 words or so the paper employed to describe Carter's remarkable (and remarkably well-chronicled) journey, less than 200 words emphasized the good works he did for countless people upon his release from prison. Bob Dylan may have drawn attention to his wrongful conviction, but Bob Marley serves as a better soundtrack for his life. It was a redemption song.
William C. Rhoden, the Times' venerable sports columnist, did better, writing in his tribute Sunday that "Carter offers a reminder that one’s deeds on the court or on the field will be quickly forgotten; contributions to society resonate across decades. Carter’s name endures not because he had a great left hook but because of the principles he represented until the day he died." Let us now spend a few minutes highlighting the ways in which those principles were distributed to countless men and women less fortunate than Carter, who had little of his natural charisma or talent or celebrity, and who desperately needed him to help bring their cases and their causes into light.
Let us spend a few minutes, for example, with Mike Farrell, the noted actor and activist, who had this to say late Sunday night (in an email response to a query) as word of Carter's death spread around the world:
Like many, I had read Rubin's book (The Sixteenth Round)
many years earlier and been deeply touched by it. In one of those
incredible strokes of luck years later I was interviewed by a fellow for
a documentary film and it turned out he was a friend. In fact, I think
he was somehow involved in the making of the feature. At any rate, he
put us in touch and became fast friends...
Rubin was such a life force, such a powerful fountain of energy, it's
hard to think of him as low or sick or now gone. He was magnetic; his
energy, his charisma, I suppose, affected everyone around him. Bringing
smiles and laughs and a sense of possibility to everyone in his
We've spoken together in so many situations, in lectures, in debates,
in press conferences calling attention to unjust and inappropriate
incarcerations (his specialty), that I smile now when I think of his
forever opening line: "Hello, my name is Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and
I'm happy to be here. (pause) I'm happy to be ANYWHERE!" Then he would
laugh that wonderful laugh and tell whatever part of his story was
relevant to the situation at hand. He was a laughing, dancing,
ambassador of possibility.
I know many exonerees and am proud to work with them. Too many of
them are damaged, in some cases virtually destroyed by their experience.
But in the best of instances, when the experience of having been
wrongly convicted, imprisoned and dehumanized the way our system does
has not crushed the spark of humanity within them, some seem to find an
ability to rise above the anger and resentment and use their experience
as a motivation to dedicate themselves to correcting the wrongs in our
They are, when given the opportunity, an inspiration to us all, and
Rubin, with his joyful, indefatigable energy, was the prime example.
We've lost a warrior.
Let us now spend a few minutes with Barry Scheck, the co-director (along with Peter Neufeld) of the Innocence Project, which has brought a measure of justice to hundreds of wrongfully convicted men and women in America over the past 22 years. The Innocence Project both enabled and benefited from Carter's indefatigable work. It both helped him and was helped by him, especially at the beginning, when he was famous and it was not. On Monday, via phone, Scheck told me that Carter was there at the very beginning of the current (and most successful) iteration of the exoneration movement:
People don't give him enough credit. When we did the first big
[innocence] conference at Northwestern, on innocence and the death
penalty, which led ultimately to the moratorium on executions by
Illinois Gov. Ryan, Rubin was the keynoter. He did the keynote speech he
always did. He would pull out of his pocket a copy of his writ of
habeas corpus signed by [U.S. District Judge] H. Lee Sarokin, [the
document that freed him from confinement, for the final time, in 1985].
"I never go anywhere without it," he would say.
appear whenever we would ask him, at conferences all over the country.
He always answered the bell. I met him two years ago, in Perth, after he
had been diagnosed with cancer. I immediately asked him to come to New
York to our dinner. And he came. And there were like a thousand people
there, at the Hilton, and the only thing that people wanted to do that
night was to have their picture taken with Rubin. He was such a
And, finally, let us spend a minute or two with another man who became famous around the world for having been wrongfully convicted and then later exonerated amid great fanfare. Few people understand Carter's life better than Gerry Conlan, the Irish exoneree of the Guildford Four, whose legacy (like Carter's) was memorialized both in song and in film. Conlan is in New York this week, by chance, and took the opportunity to tell me he considers Carter "a great man" who traveled across the pond to speak on behalf of the voiceless there, and who understood that "tragedies usually happen to the most disadvantaged people in the most disadvantaged circumstances."
The point here is not to enlarge Carter in death beyond what he was in life, or to diminish the profound legal and political significance of his wrongful conviction. He will forever be a symbol of a racially unjust justice system—a system that still exists today. The circumstances of his incarceration will always engender debate. Even some of the dubious choices he made after his release, some of the challenges he created for himself, allow us all to appreciate today that he was a quintessentially American hero—flawed, raw, edgy, but eventually resolute and on a righteous path.
"If I find a heaven after this life, I’ll be quite surprised," he said shortly before his death. "In my own years on this planet, though, I lived in hell for the first 49 years, and have been in heaven for the past 28 years." It's a shame so many news outlets focused on the former and disregarded the latter. For in those 28 years of "heaven," Rubin Carter changed the world, one speech, one photograph, one exoneration case at a time. He had every right to give in to the anger he surely felt. Instead, famously, he said that "hatred and bitterness and anger only consume the vessel that contains them. It doesn't hurt another soul.
23rd Annual Awards Dinner Draws Stars, Activists, and Exonerees
Posted by on April 18th, 2014
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez, Death Penalty Focus President Mike Farrell, Actor James Cromwell, Actor Peter Sarsgaard, Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.
On Tuesday, April 15, nearly 400 people gathered at the Beverly Hilton for the 23rd Annual Death Penalty Focus Annual Awards Dinner. Among the award recipients were Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez, Actor Peter Sarsgaard, and Capital Appellate Project Executive Director Michael Millman.
“What a wonderful, touching, thought-provoking event,” said DPF President Mike Farrell. “To be moved from laughter to tears and back again and go home with a feeling of hopeful possibility is in the finest tradition of these Death Penalty Focus dinners. And for all the glamor and star-power in the room, nothing was more impressive than the group of exonerees who stood to be recognized, their courage and commitment electrifying the evening.”
Four people were honored for their extraordinary contributions to the movement for human rights and against capital punishment.
Michael Millman, the Executive Director of the California Appellate Project, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Due to his physician’s orders, Millman was unable to attend the event, but he wrote a moving speech about his decades of work providing legal representation for indigent appellants. The speech was delivered by Jonathan Steiner, the Executive Director of the California Appellate Project’s Los Angeles office, who called Millman a personal hero.
UN Special Rapportuer on Torture Juan Méndez.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, accepted the Human Rights Award for his work exposing human rights violations in prisons in the US and around the world. Méndez recently studied the use of solitary confinement in US correctional facilities and concluded that as little as 15 days amounted to torture. Méndez, who was himself tortured as a prisoner in Argentina, argued that the use of torture is as troubling in the US as anywhere else, and that state killings fundamentally violate human rights.
Actors James Cromwell and Peter Sarsgaard.
Peter Sarsgaard accepted the Justice in the Arts Award on behalf of the cast and crew of The Killing. Sarsgaard played an innocent death row prisoner in the program’s third season and surprised many when he revealed that his first role was one of the victims in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking. To perform these parts in a way that would deeply affect viewers, he said, required an immense amount of empathy and understanding. Translating the human toll of the death penalty has cemented his opposition to it.
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley,
The Mario Cuomo Acts of Courage Award went to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley for spearheading his state’s effort to repeal the death penalty in 2013. O’Malley’s approach might serve as a model for other governors. Under his administration, the death penalty was repealed, crime rates have fallen due to better prevention policies, and the savings have be invested in services for victims. In his speech, the governor stressed his belief that the death penalty does not comport with the American values of progress and equal justice.
Larry Flynt and DPF President Mike Farrell.
Other honorees included victims, their families, and exonerees. Larry Flynt was honored for opposing the execution of the man who shot and paralyzed him during an inter-state crime spree. Flynt has mentioned that he had every reason to seek revenge but, with time, has realized that the death penalty serves no useful purpose. Robert Autobee was honored for his courage in the face of a system he finds to be committed to vengeance rather than justice. His son was murdered while serving as a prison guard, and Autobee said that the experience sent him into a profound moral and spiritual crisis. He found the strength to seek reconciliation with his son’s murderer and to lobby both the district attorney and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to drop capital charges.
Exoneree Nick Yarris and his spouse, Jessica, along with exoneree Obie Anthony and his spouse, Denise.
The event also honored three exonerees. In 1982, Nick Yarris was wrongfully convicted and throughout the process he proclaimed his innocence. Fortunately he was spared in 2004, becoming the 140th person to be exonerated due to DNA evidence. Yarris has published a book detailing his harrowing ordeal titled Seven Days to Live. Anthony Graves was wrongfully convicted of a murder he did not commit. Recently exonerated, Graves dedicated a portion of his restitution to a scholarship fund in honor of the professor and students who proved his innocence. Kash Delano Register was wrongfully convicted of a murder he did not commit. Register spent a shocking 34 years in prison for the crime, and was only exonerated a few months ago. He received a standing ovation from the evening’s guests.
The event highlighted the deep, fundamental problems with capital punishment around the world and in the US especially. Although this was the 23rd iteration of the Annual Awards Dinner, many attendees remarked that it this was the most spirited and significant in recent memory.
Actors Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal (married), along with DPF President Mike Farrell. Their badges read "The America I Believe In Does Not Torture or Execute People."
Mississippi Woman Granted New Trial
Posted by on March 31st, 2014
Today, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the conviction of Michelle Byrom and ordered a new trial. The Order can be found here.
Death Penalty Focus is pleased that the Mississippi Supreme Court saw
the numerous errors in Ms. Byrom's original trial and vacated the conviction. Now, Ms. Byrom will have the opportunity to present evidence of her innocence and the enormous amount of abuse she endured in a new, fair trial.
To learn more about Michelle Byrom's case, please see this article from the Jacksonville Free Press.
The following is a statement from David Voisin, advisor to Michelle Byrom’s legal team:
“We are grateful to the Mississippi Supreme Court in recognizing the extreme injustice in this case and taking the swift and extraordinary step of vacating Michelle Byrom’s conviction so that she can have a fair opportunity to have her case heard in court. Michelle suffered extreme sexual and physical abuse from an early age and throughout her marriage. We are pleased that Ms. Byrom will now have the opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence that she is innocent of murder-for-hire.”
-David Voisin, attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, advisor to Michelle Byrom legal team
March 31, 2014
For more information, please contact: David Voisin, firstname.lastname@example.org
"Death Row Stories" Comes to California
Posted by on March 13th, 2014
Last week, CNN brought you the first episode in the new series ‘Death Row Stories’. The episode featured the case of Edward Lee Elmore, a man who spent 29 years on death row in South Carolina for a murder he did not commit. It was a powerful episode that highlighted many of the injustices that persist in our criminal justice system.
This Sunday (3/16) at 9pm ET/6pm PT, CNN will premiere the second episode of Death Row Stories, featuring a case that happened in our own backyard. After a home invasion/murder in Sacramento, Gloria Killian, a former law student with no criminal background, was convicted of the crime. She was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison, narrowly escaping the death penalty.
The episode follows Gloria’s 18 years-long battle to prove her innocence, and the unexpected allies she made along the way.
Check out the sneak preview below, and make sure to tune in to CNN Sunday at 9pm ET/6pm PT to see the full episode!
Join us on twitter for a live discussion about the episode and wrongful convictions in California. Follow us at @DPFocus and use #deathrowstories to join the conversation!
More Doubts Raised in Texas Execution
Posted by on February 28th, 2014
Before his execution, the arson evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham was debunked by experts as junk science. Yet the State of Texas ignored the serious doubts and crumbling evidence in the case against Willingham, and proceeded with his execution in 2004.
Now, even more evidence has come to light that prosecutors deliberately concealed information about a deal with a jailhouse informant from the Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles when opposing a stay of execution.
This evidence is simply more proof that Texas committed a grave injustice in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. It is time they admit their mistake.
Read more about this latest development in the effort to clear Willingham's name in the New York Times.
Learn more about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham at the Innocence Project.
You can also watch an excerpt from the documentary Incendiary which details the flaws in the case against Willingham.
"Reform" Initiative Short-changes Victims and Taxpayers
Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on February 24th, 2014
|Vera Crutcher's son was murdered in California. She remains opposed to the death penalty. |
Last week, death penalty supporters officially launched a signature gathering effort for an initiative that would change death penalty procedures, which they claim would bring "reform" to the system. As we know, there is no way to fix California’s death penalty, and this initiative would only result in even more delays and increased expenses.
Instead, real reform, spearheaded by families of murder victims in a number of States most recently including Connecticut (2012) and Maryland (2013), means replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole (LWOP), essentially death in prison. Replacing the death penalty will provide justice for murder victims and their families, as opposed to the deadly mirage of "reform" offered by the proposed initiative.
As Kathleen Garcia, a victim advocate and expert on traumatic grief who has herself lost a niece to murder, declared: "It is my opinion, as well as the view of other long-standing victim advocates throughout New Jersey, that our capital punishment system harmed the survivors of murder victims. It may have been put in place to serve us, but in fact it was a colossal failure for the many families I serve." She was a central figure in New Jersey's replacement of that broken system with life in prison without parole in 2007, the true reform supported in our state by groups such as California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Sadly, this proposed initiative would continue all the harms which victim-advocates such as Garcia have cautioned against, inflicting needless psychological trauma and diverting funds from programs which can provide survivors of murder victims with counselling, therapy, restitution, and community assistance on the road to healing.
First, this initiative offers a false promise to family members of murder victims. The initiative is so filled with legal and constitutional problems and would inevitably result in lengthy litigation. While the proponents claim this would allow families of murder victims to receive closure, it is clear that it simply will continue, or worsen, the agonizing journey through the trial, appeals, and clemency process to the possible destination of an actual execution. Even in States like Texas known for their busy death chambers, executions are becoming rarer, as society finds LWOP a more manageable and reliable alternative. As Garcia says, observing that getting through the criminal justice system is a challenge for murder survivors: "When the death penalty is added to the process, the survivor's connection to the system becomes a long-term and often multidecade nightmare that almost never ends in the promised result."
In contrast, replacing the death penalty with LWOP means swift, certain, and reliable justice. The murderer is sentenced to death in prison, and the victim's family can say "case closed." While these families often point out that there is no such thing as "closure" or "getting over" the violent death of a loved one, the LWOP solution spares them years of reopened wounds and relived trauma through the long legal quest for an execution, the "nightmare" of which Garcia speaks.
Secondly, California's death penalty system -- with or without the proposed changes -- diverts funds from Victims' Services programs that can improve the quality of life for family members of murder victims. In California, replacing the death penalty with LWOP, a punishment which can be carried out immediately even while any appeals are in progress, would save an estimated $117-$184 million dollars per year.
As Garcia states: "Every dollar we spend on a punishment that harms survivors is one we are taking away from the services that can address the emergent and long-term needs of all victims."
Third, the spectacle of the death penalty both during years of complex legal maneuverings and in the fateful days leading up to a possible execution, shifts the public's attention from the murder victim and his or her family and community to the murderer. Rather than honoring the victims and their lives, citizens are distracted by a new and overwhelming drama: "Shall we kill the killer?"
Perversely, some serial killers and other Death Row prisoners relish this publicity; but it does untold harm to family members of both murder victims and Death Row prisoners. Society deserves a sober and loving reflection to honor victims and their families, not a Roman circus giving murderers the limelight in a gripping new drama of life or death.
Fourth, California's death penalty, "reformed" or otherwise, sends the invidious message that some victims and families are more important or worthwhile than others, with the execution of the perpetrator as the gold standard of "justice for the victim," and a sentence of "only" LWOP or death in prison as a kind of consolation prize at best. Which murderers live or die can be influenced by such factors as race, class, and accidents of geography.
True reform, replacing the death penalty with LWOP, sends the message that all victims and families are valued, and that the worst killers will predictably and uniformly be sentenced to live, work, make restitution, and die in prison, a sentence which does not require a new act of killing.
Finally, family members of murder victims who must cope with the agony of an unsolved case where the killer may still be at large want justice for their loved ones, and for other victims and families relegated to "cold case" files. The futile initiative would not serve their needs.
As Judy Kerr of California Crime Victims, whose brother was murdered, states: "The death penalty won't bring my brother back or help to apprehend his murderer. We need to start investing in programs that will actually improve public safety and get more killers off the streets."
In short, this misguided and deeply flawed initiative cannot make a success of a broken death penalty system which has proved to be an epic FAIL for families of murder victims and for the community at large. Donald McCartin, for many years a self-described "hanging judge" in Orange County who sentenced nine defendants to death, sums up the reality of the death penalty as "a waste of time and money.... The only thing it does is prolong the agony of the victims' families."
Family members of murder victims such as Garcia and Kerr bid us march on to the true reform we almost achieved in 2012: the proposed initiative offers a mirage which is not an oasis of justice but a deeper legal and fiscal quagmire we must avoid.
Remembering Greg Wilhoit
Posted by Chelsea Bond on February 18th, 2014
|Greg Wilhoit at the DPF Annual Awards Dinner, with attorney Ellen Eggers, exoneree Franky Carrillo, his wife Judy, and sister Nancy.|
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.
Stuttering and Gasping for Air
Posted by Chelsea Bond on January 17th, 2014
On Thursday, January 16, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire using new, untested drugs. An expert anesthesiologist warned that one of the drugs was inappropriate to use in an execution, stating that it could cause the inmate to be conscious while suffering through the sensation that he was suffocating.
The doctors concerns were well-founded. Dennis McGuire appeared to have struggled and gasped for air for more than 10 minutes. Some witnesses say that the struggle endured even longer, for nearly 19 minutes.
The family is planning on filing a lawsuit against the state for inflicting cruel and unusual punishment. Speaking about what he witnessed, Dennis McGuire's son said, "I watched his stomach heave, I watched him trying to sit up against the straps on the gurney, I watched him repeatedly clench his fist … [it] appeared to me he was fighting for his life while suffocating...I can't think of any other way to describe it other than torture."
This experimental execution that went horribly wrong is just the latest in a string of desperate and unacceptable attempts by states to prop up a failing death penalty system.
Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University specializing in execution methods, said, "[States] are out of control, taking ever greater risks with increasingly inappropriate drugs."
It is clearer than ever that this scramble to find new ways to execute people is heading down a dangerous path.
Death Penalty Focus is joining Ohioans to Stop Executions in calling on Governor Kasich to issue an immediate moratorium on all executions. This horrifying execution, which witnesses say resulted in “agony and terror”, should be a wakeup call to state leaders.
Ohio’s death penalty is broken, and this cruel execution is one more clear signal that it is time to put a stop to executions.
If you live in Ohio, please join with Ohioans to Stop Executions in calling for an immediate moratorium on executions.
Take the next step with me
Posted by Matt Cherry on December 30th, 2013
A message to our supporters:
“Ring out the old year and ring in the new” has extra resonance for me and my family right now, because the end of 2013 marks the start of a new journey. You see, last month I accepted the position of executive director of Death Penalty Focus, and on January 2, I start working in that vital role. I am leaving my human rights work at the United Nations and moving across the continent to California to face a new human rights challenge: the abolition of the death penalty.
I took on this challenge because I believe that the global elimination of the death penalty is just a few steps away, and that the first of those steps must be the abolition of capital punishment in California.
California leads the country in the number of people it sentences to death, with 24 new death sentences in 2013, bringing the total to 747 death row inmates in California alone. It may not seem like one state could make such a difference to the world, but I assure you it can. My work at the United Nations taught me that countries across the globe look to the United States to lead the way. And currently many countries use us as an excuse to defend the practice of deliberately killing their own citizens. I’ve heard it directly from a diplomat’s smiling mouth: “You criticize us for executions, even though America executes far more than us.”
Together, we can change that. We can make the US a positive example for abolishing the death penalty. Click here to make a gift to Death Penalty Focus.
Death Penalty Focus has led us to the verge of ending capital punishment in California. Proposition 34 showed how close we are to getting a majority to vote to stop the state from ever killing another citizen. Indeed, polls show that enthusiasm for the death penalty is waning across the nation—support for capital punishment is now at its lowest level since 1972. But taking those final steps to abolition will require more work, more outreach, and more funding.
As the new executive director, I personally need your help. We must take the next steps together. We must do even more, and give even more, to take California in the right direction. It can lead the nation in sentencing its citizens to die, or it can lead the world in ending the death penalty.
Won’t you join me on this journey to end the death penalty? Please give whatever you can.
Death Penalty Focus
RIP Delbert Tibbs
Posted by Chelsea Bond on November 25th, 2013
We are saddened to learn about the death of Delbert Tibbs, a death row exoneree who dedicated his life to ending the death penalty.
Delbert was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a 27-year-old man near Fort Myers, Florida, and spent three years in prison, two on death row, before the Florida Supreme Court reversed the case. The original prosecutor, James S. Long,
declared that the case had been “tainted from the beginning and the
investigators knew it.”
Delbert later moved to Chicago where he wrote poetry and continued his advocacy against the death penalty as the Assistant Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence.
Delbert Tibbs inspired people wherever he went, and will continue doing so even after his passing.Thank you for sharing your story with the world.
Rewriting the Death Penalty
Posted by on November 14th, 2013
Check out Lawrence O’Donnell’s video about new conservative leaders speaking out against the death penalty, and DPF’s long history as a leader in the movement!
Over the years, DPF has worked to build a broad coalition of people from diverse backgrounds to join the fight against the death penalty. This coalition includes law enforcement officials, exonerees, murder victims’ family members, and people of faith. Learn more about our programs, and watch the video below!
BREAKING: New death row exoneration!
Posted by Chelsea Bond on October 31st, 2013
|Reggie Griffin discusses his experience being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. |
On October 25, Reginald Griffin became the 143rd person to be exonerated from death row since 1973.
Griffin was sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate in 1983. His conviction rested on testimony from two jailhouse informants, who received benefits for their testimony. Prosecutors also withheld key evidence from Griffin's defense regarding a screwdriver that had been found on another inmate.
Griffins sentence was eventually changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and in 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Griffin's conviction, saying that the conviction was not "worthy of confidence." He was released, but prosecutors immediately filed charges to retry him, citing DNA evidence that allegedly tied him to the murder.
However, that DNA evidence didn't "pan out", according to prosecutors, and the state dismissed the charges.
It took 30 years to clear his name, but Griffin is glad to put the nightmare behind him. "To not have this over my head is more than what words can describe.Now that it's over, I'm
going to try to put my life back together, to go on with my life," he told The Associated Press.
Griffin is the first death row exoneration of 2013, and the 4th person exonerated from Missouri. To find out more about death row exonerations, visit DPIC's Innocence Database.
Congratulations to Reggie, and to the team of lawyers who worked tirelessly to clear his name.
California Death Row Inmate Granted International Hearing
Posted by Chelsea Bond on October 24th, 2013
Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate in California, has been granted a hearing regarding human rights violations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which seeks to protect human rights and basic freedoms in the Americas. Cooper has been on death row in California for 29 years, and has always maintained his innocence.
Attorneys for Cooper stated that they are “hopeful
that the Commission will issue a decision directing that the United
States provide Mr. Cooper with a new trial in order to allow him to
prove once and for all that he is innocent of these crimes.”
Death Penalty Focus has submitted a letter to the Commission in support of Kevin Cooper, which expresses our concern about the facts of this case, as well as our stance that the death penalty is never an appropriate sentence.
Send your own letter expressing support for a new trial for Kevin Cooper to the IACHR.
To: Honorable Commissioners of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights
From: Mike Farrell, Chair of the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus
Virginia Van Zandt, Interim Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus
Re: Kevin Cooper v. United States, Case No. 12.831
Dear Members of the Court,
We write representing the Board of Directors, staff and thousands of members/supporters of Death Penalty Focus, one of the premier abolition organizations in the United States, in support of your attention to the plight of Kevin Cooper.
While we do not pretend to be qualified to judge the legal questions surrounding Kevin Cooper’s case, our 25 years of work against the death penalty in California and across the nation have made us painfully aware of the glaring faults inherent in this inappropriate, ineffective system and the grievous errors committed in its implementation. California houses our nation’s, and possibly the world’s, largest death row, currently encaging 742 condemned men and women.
Because of a judicially imposed moratorium, there has not been an execution in California in 7 years. This moratorium, however, can end at any moment and, regardless of the state’s ability to carry out executions, the condemned struggle to subsist under conditions which a recent report by our Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) says “clearly violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture.” This opinion, regarding both death row conditions and the death penalty itself, is shared by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.
As is the case with every killing state in the U.S., capital punishment’s use in California is primarily limited to racial minorities and those too poor to be able to afford an adequate defense. California has barely escaped killing six innocent men* who were tried, convicted, sentenced to death and spent years fearfully awaiting the executioner before finally being exonerated and freed.
But we did execute Thomas Thompson in 1998, a man Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a long-time veteran of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, described (New York University Law Journal) as “the first person in the Nation ever to be executed on the basis of a trial that an un-refuted decision of a United States Court of Appeals had held to be unconstitutional.”
While unable to argue the legal aspects of Kevin Cooper’s defense, we are keenly aware of the compelling 100-page dissent in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in his case in which Judge William A. Fletcher stated that Mr. Cooper was “probably” innocent. Four other judges joined his opinion, stating that “California may be about to execute an innocent man.”
We commend your careful attention to this troubling case.
Chair, Board of Directors
Virginia Van Zandt
Interim Executive Director
* California death row exonerees: Troy Lee Jones, Lee Perry Farmer, Jerry Bigelow, Patrick Croy, Shujaa Graham, Oscar Lee Morris
Click here for a PDF version.
For more information about the troubling aspects of the investigation, see the declaration by Tom Parker, former Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"I am free. I am free."
Posted by Marisol Dominguez on October 4th, 2013
Herman Wallace endured 42 years of solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, decades of injustice, a battle with liver cancer so that he could finally say, "I am free." On Tuesday, October 1st Wallace was released and three days later he died in his sleep, due to his terminal disease. This case has received much spotlight because of the racism surrounding the conviction and the cruel treatment of being placed in SHU for decades. Herman Wallace is not a lone example of the injustices of the criminal system as he accounts for one of the Angola 3. The 'Angola 3,' Herman Wallace, Robert King and Albert Woodfox, were charged with the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller, in 1972. At the time of the murder, the 'Angola 3' were completing a sentence for armed robbery and played key roles in the Black Panther movement within the prison. Since their accusation of killing the guard, The Angola 3, were removed from general prison population and continue to claim their innocence.
Their trial was far from fair and decades of appeals have not produced enough change. As of today, October 4, Wallace has passed away with a looming re-indictment, King is free after having his conviction overturned in 2001, and Woodfox continues to live in solitary confinement. Justice will prevail when the court overturns all convictions and the 'Angola 3' receive an apology. But then, we should ask ourselves, is this really justice?
Herman, Your spirit will continue to inspire people to fight for a more humane and just world.
Texas Executes 500th Inmate...now what?
Posted by Chelsea on June 26th, 2013
Tonight, Texas executed its 500th person since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
It is the first state to reach this unseemly milestone, with current Governor Rick Perry playing a major part, having presided over 260 executions (also a record). It’s a shocking number, and though it is certainly is a grim milestone, what does Texas executing its 500th person actually say about the current state of the death penalty in the United States?
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.
20th Anniversary of Sister Helen's bestselling book, Dead Man Walking!
Posted by on June 17th, 2013
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Sister Helen Prejean’s bestselling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. In celebration of this anniversary, the book will be re-released tomorrow, June 18th!
This book, recounting Sister Helen’s experience and bond with death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, helped bring more attention to the death penalty. Sister Helen created a much needed discussion about the death penalty, and though much progress has been made since the book was first released twenty years ago, she continues to work tirelessly to put an end to Capital Punishment once and for all.
This book has opened the eyes of the thousands of readers, and will continue to bring awareness to the death penalty issue in the years to come. Who knows? Perhaps for the 40th anniversary of Dead Man Walking, we will be celebrating the end of the death penalty in the U.S.!
One for Ten
Posted by on February 21st, 2013
We're really excited to be supporting a new documentary series - One For Ten - that will tell the stories of ten innocent people who were exonerated and released from America's death row.
Ray Krone is just one of those innocent people. One for Ten chose Ray's story to be the first of their short films. You can check it out here (Danny Glover even introduces it!)
Over five weeks in April and May, One for Ten will travel across the country, producing two films a week for immediate online distribution. All the films will be free to watch and free to share.
They are supported by a broad coalition of charity partners of which we're excited to be a part and the project is totally interactive, which means you can have a hand in asking the questions and giving your feedback on the films as they're released.
In order to make this project happen, One for Ten needs support and funding. Watch what their project is all about, and if you want to see more, consider contributing to their campaign.
You can support this project by LIKING them on Facebook, FOLLOWING them on Twitter and SHARING their campaign with your networks.
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