The Death Penalty Blog : Displaying 71-90 of 365

Our secret weapon

Posted by Mike Farrell on December 29th, 2011

2011 has been a year of tremendous achievements, heartbreaking losses and, at last, real hope for change in California.

In March, Illinois followed New York, New Jersey and New Mexico and abolished the death penalty. Two months later, we at Death Penalty Focus were thrilled to honor Illinois Governor Pat Quinn at our Annual Awards Dinner. Governor Quinn, who had long supported the death penalty, spent two months deliberating on his decision.  At our event he spoke eloquently about his change of heart. "If the system can't be guaranteed 100% error-free, then we shouldn't have the system," Quinn said. "It cannot stand."

April brought the incredible Jeanne Woodford to Death Penalty Focus as our new Executive Director. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Jeanne, please hear me when I say that she is our secret weapon for ending the death penalty in California - and beyond. As the warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne experienced the pain of overseeing four executions.  After leaving San Quentin, she was appointed to head the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  Today, the more people Jeanne has the opportunity to meet and talk with, the more support we gain for ending the death penalty. It’s almost that simple. Put Jeanne in front of a group of death penalty supporters and before long their support begins to evaporate. We are thrilled to have her on board.

I am also thrilled that, last week, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon halted executions in his state. In a simple but uncompromising statement, he echoed the growing distaste for capital punishment being heard in many of our courts, our legislatures, churches, and homes.  "I am convinced,” he wrote, “we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values.  I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor."  Bravo Governor Kitzhaber!

September brought the heartbreaking execution of Troy Davis. Yet, even on that most awful day, Mr. Davis himself understood that his death would galvanize support for ending this barbaric practice.  On his last day he said, "There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country…Never stop fighting for justice and we will win!"

I wholeheartedly agree with Troy Davis. We will win. In fact, next November California voters have the chance to replace the death penalty with life without parole.

Here at Death Penalty Focus, we know what it takes to convince people to end the death penalty.  DPF excels at empowering exonorees, crime victims’ families, and law enforcement professionals to be effective spokespersons for alternatives to the death penalty. We know from focus groups that these voices are the most effective in changing hearts and minds.

Please make a generous donation today, so that Death Penalty Focus can honor the memory of Troy Davis by making California the next state to end the death penalty.

Thank you.

Mike Farrell President, Death Penalty Focus

PS- Because of contributions from dedicated supporters like you, we continue to move closer to ending the death penalty. We can’t do this work without you. Please donate today!

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SAFE California Initiative Spells Swift Justice

Posted by Margo Schulter on November 3rd, 2011
November 3, 2011

A story that has stuck with me over the decades comes from a school civics text. A criminal came into the town of Milwaukee and killed a man. He was arrested in the morning, tried in the afternoon, and that evening was already serving his life sentence in the State Penitentiary.  Sadder but wiser, he expressed admiration for Milwaukee as a place which stood up for justice.

This brand of swift and decisive "frontier justice" in homicide cases is a topic of stories not only in Wisconsin, which
abolished the death penalty in 1853, but also in Michigan, famed as the first English-speaking jurisdiction to abolish it for murder in 1846 (the death penalty for treason technically remained on the books until 1963). Society's message was clear: take a human life through premeditated murder, and you'll spend the rest of your natural life in prison.

While we may be unable in 21st-century California literally to achieve same-day justice in homicide cases, the SAFE California Initiative will provide the same kind of swift, certain, and nonlethal justice that the old stories from places such as Michigan and Wisconsin celebrate. And by comparison to the decades-long ordeal often inflicted by our broken death penalty system on families of murder victims and condemned prisoners alike as well as society at large, the progress of a life without parole case from arrest to trial to permanent imprisonment of the murderer may seem almost as fast as in those stories of a century or more ago.

One feature of the initiative may recall another phrase of old: "life at hard labor." Under the SAFE California Act, prisoners sentenced to life without parole will be required to perform labor and make restitution to the Victims' Services fund. Not only will they live and die in prison, but they will be held accountable both to the families of their victims, and to society at large as the victim of every assault on the sanctity of human life.

It would be naive, of course, to think that society can devise any punishment that will deter all murders. All too often, for example, we hear of mass shootings where the offender commits suicide with the final shot, or has a history of suicide attempts; so the death penalty hardly seems to dissuade them. However, if there is an effective deterrent to make some potential killers think twice, it might be life and death in prison plus labor and restitution to society. This is especially true if word gets out on the street that the law is really being enforced.

The SAFE California Act makes a commitment to help get that word out by directing $100 million over the period 2012-2016 to a SAFE California Fund to improve the rates at which homicide and rape cases are solved and the perpetrators arrested and punished. Getting killers off the streets not only directly prevents more homicides or other violent crimes by these same perpetrators, but indeed sends a message of deterrence to others.

Currently, with 46% of homicides and 56% of rapes going unsolved, that message is not so clear. What we need to do is to establish very clearly, in practice as well as theory, that killing one's victim in the course of a robbery or sexual assault -- in order to prevent them from making an identification or testifying, for example -- is a recipe for swift detection and a sentence of life, labor, and death in prison.

The SAFE California Fund is a first giant step at making swift and certain punishment a reality. As the Attorney General's summary of the initiative very cautiously estimates, abolishing our broken death penalty system will produce savings "in the high tens of millions of dollars annually," with the Fund thus representing only a relatively small portion of these savings. A recent study by federal Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula Mitchell suggests savings of $184 million a year, greater than the total amount of the Fund over the full four-year period! The Legislature, of course, will be free to apply more of these savings to local law enforcement and also to crime prevention strategies such as mental health interventions, while retaining needed flexibility at a time of budgetary crisis.

While swift and certain justice is always an ideal to be striven for, the old stories remind us that society can respond to the tragedy of murder in a clear, decisive, and nonlethal way. The SAFE California Act is an invitation to clear the decks of a failed death penalty policy, roll up our sleeves, and give our police the support that they need as we move together toward a safer and saner future.

If you would like to volunteer for the SAFE California campaign, please visit

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Leading the US effort for Worldwide Abolition

Posted by Elizabeth Zitrin on
October, 10, 2011

Worldwide abolition of the the death penalty.

It will be wonderful when it happens, and while you know about Death Penalty Focus' 20-plus years in the forefront of the movement in the US, you are probably less familiar with our international work against the death penalty. Right now, we ask you to join an international petition for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.

We reported to you recently that we are working hard now for the SAFE California initiative to replace California's death penalty with life without the possibility of parole in 2012. When we suceed in California, it will be big news all over the world, particularly in our large international abolition movement.

In 1988, when DPF was founded, only 35 nations worldwide had abolished the death penalty completely, and another 18 had abolished it for ordinary crimes. Today, 139 countries, most of the nations on earth, have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. The US, sadly, is in the very bad company of China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen as one of the top five executing nations, but we are working every day to be a strong part of the international trend away from capital punishment.

Death Penalty Focus is in the leadership of this international abolition movement, as a member of the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Every year, on October 10th, World Day Against the Death Penalty, the World Coalition's 125 member organizations in 35 countries, participate in an international program of education and activism against the death penalty.

This year, the 9th World Day Against the Death Penalty is focusing on The Inhumanity of the Death Penalty. We have launched a Petition drive in support of the United Nations resolution calling for a worldwide end to the use of the death penalty. This resolution will be voted on in the General Assembly of the UN in December of 2012.

We hope you will join DPF in the leadership of US participation in this international movement toward abolition by signing the 2011 International Petition Against the Death Penalty. This movement is growing and gaining momentum, both in the US and all over the world, and we are very excited to be a part of it.

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A Very Premeditated Murder

Posted by Margo Schulter on September 28th, 2011

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

In the immediate wake of the tragic execution of Troy Davis, killed by the State of Georgia despite serious doubts concerning his guilt and widespread appeals for clemency even from usual death penalty supporters, one of the most moving voices was that of Allen Ault, former Director of the Georgia Department of Corrections, who had himself supervised and helped carry out executions in Georgia.

As part of the movement to save Troy Davis's life, Ault had joined with former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford and other retired corrections officials asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider its decision denying clemency to Davis, a decision reached according to one account by an agonizingly close 3-2 vote.

Interviewed by Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC only minutes after the execution of Troy Davis, Ault spoke directly about the experience of carrying out a death sentence:

"It's one thing to theorize about it or talk about it abstractly, but when you're in the death chamber ordering an execution, and even if you… actually believe somebody isguilty, it's still a very premeditated murder. It's scripted and rehearsed. It's about as premeditated as any killing you can do."

Talking with Maddow about the special burdens placed on "people of conscience" carrying out an execution where there are doubts about guilt, as in Davis's case, Ault emphasized the more general issue of killing itself:

"It['s] exacting a toll whether you believe they're innocent or they're guilty. You're actually killing somebody.”

Ault mentioned getting letters from citizens eager to volunteer for the post of executioner.

"There are people without conscience, psychopathic type people, some of them politicians, and sadists who would volunteer. I would hate to see us fall; to be that depraved that they would let people like that do the execution.”

"I can't see the justification. If we're just reaping vengeance for somebody, I don't see the justification in
that either. I talked to a lot of families of victims who didn't feel fulfilled after the execution took place. I can't speak for all the families of victims, but I know I've talked to many."

That same day, one of those family members, Ross Byrd in Texas, experienced, as did Ault, the sadness and defeat of an execution after he had struggled for clemency. Byrd is the son of James Byrd, an African-American who became the victim of an especially horrible act of racist hate: being tied to a motor vehicle and literally dragged to his death. As Byrd explained, in words much like those of Ault, why he sought clemency for Lawrence Brewer: "We can't fight murder with murder."

As mentioned above, one of the signers of the appeal by retired corrections officials to save Troy Davis's life is Jeanne Woodford, now Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus. Like Ault, she learned at first hand "how empty and futile the act of execution is."

"As the warden of San Quentin, I presided over four executions. After each one, someone on the staff would ask: `Is the world safer because of what we did tonight?'

"We knew the answer: No."

With the killing of a prisoner where innocence is at issue such as Troy Davis -- or Tommy Thompson in California (July 14, 1998) -- the toll on corrections officials and officers may be especially high. But the psychological and spiritual price of brutalization is too high in any execution, not to mention the price, human and fiscal, exacted upon society at large, which means us all. As Woodford sums things up:

"To say that I have regrets about my involvement in the death penalty is to let myself off the hook too easily. To take a life in order to prove how much we value another life does not strengthen our society. It is a public policy that devalues our very being and detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our community safe."

To honor Troy Davis, and also Officer Mark MacPhail for whose murder he may have been executed although innocent, Death Penalty Focus and the SAFE California campaign will continue our movement to abolish the death penalty in California at the ballot box in 2012 and provide better support to law enforcement and victims' services. That would be a fitting legacy for these two victims of homicidal

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Final Hours

Posted by Christine Meuris on September 22nd, 2011


Originally posted on Fair and Unbalanced

In the earthquake cottage I shared with my husband, on the night of July 13th 1998, the phone rang. It was about 10:00pm. The summer fog would have rolled through the Alemany gap several hours before. It would have been a cold damp night and though bed was the reasonable place to be on a night like that, I was up waiting. My husband and his colleagues were awake too, trying not just to wait, trying to stave off the helplessness they were feeling. They were at the office working to bring as much media attention to the night as they could, legal options having been exhausted.

Thomas Thompson had been within hours of his execution a year before when a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had spared him. This stay was now permanently vacated and once again he was scheduled to die within hours.

My husband had been with him at the prison. Thompson's mother had been there too in the private visiting room, where state procedure allows for a shackled last few hours. Trays of cold cuts and cheeses lay on a table bringing to mind working lunches, staff meetings and birthday parties. Was anyone hungry?

At six o'clock, the visitors including the lawyers were required to leave. A member of Thompson's legal team would come later to be a witness, while the rest worked on.

That is how my husband came to be at the office while the collect call from San Quentin came to our house. Upon accepting the charges I heard for the first time the voice of the man who had occupied so much of my married life, the man who my husband was fiercely trying to protect from the ultimate punishment.

In the summer of 1981, I was a skinny kid in a red and white bathing suit playing in the waves and collecting shells washed up on the sand in Laguna Beach, California. That same summer in that very vacation town an awful situation or plot, depending on how you look at it, was brewing for Ginger Fleishli and Thomas Thompson. By early September of that year, Ginger's body was found wrapped in a sleeping bag in a field.

The man convicted of this crime was now asking me whether my husband was home. No he was not, he was at the office. Did he have the number I asked? He did, and that was all there was to say. What does one say to someone who is keeping a stiff upper lip and who for the second time in a year is staring into the face of death by injection? I stumbled and bumbled, almost saying "good luck" before I said the only thing there was to say, "Goodbye."

I hung up the phone feeling as though the wing of death had brushed overhead, through the fog that blanketed my husband's office, our home and the prison.

Last night, my husband listened to the radio quietly to hear the fate of Troy Davis while I put the kids to bed. This morning I woke to find him going through his morning chores, heavy hearted. The U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for Troy Davis' execution and he had been put to death.

A reporter had called my husband in Troy Davis' final hours to ask whether my husband saw any connection between the Thompson and the Davis case. There was so much doubt raised upon appeal about the defendant's guilt. Each man faced a breathtaking stutter-stop journey of temporary defense victories on the way to the death chamber. My husband pointed out these things.

But it is the second thing, common to all cases, this bumpy road of hope and despair while fate hangs in the hands of others that is the final, impossible obscenity of the death penalty and the creepy thing that made our hearts heavy this morning as we got the kids ready for school.

These cases are subjected to level upon level of review in an attempt to ensure that the death penalty is administered properly; states search for ways to kill people that do not set their hair on fire or suffocate them while the are too tightly strapped to writhe; as we do all this, the one thing we cannot do anything about, is the forcing of an otherwise healthy person to stare for years at their untimely death, as they swing between hope and despair.

It is impossible to imagine what this is like, as impossible as finding the right words to say, when a man in this position, in his last hours, calls on the phone.


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The time has come. We’re ending the death penalty.

Posted by Ana Zamora on
Program Director

Mark your calendars, friends: November 6, 2012 will be a day to celebrate. It's the day we're going to end the death penalty in California.

On August 29, 2011, Taxpayers for Justice, a group of law enforcement professionals, crime victim advocates, and individuals exonerated from wrongful conviction, launched the SAFE California Campaign, to put before the voters an initiative that will replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It has taken years, even decades of work by many of you to get to this point. I know some people thought it might never happen. But it is really happening. And yes, we really can win-with your help.

SIGN UP NOW to join this tremendous and historical effort to end the death penalty. We are actively seeking volunteers to help gather the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

Now, a little information about the initiative.

The SAFE California Act will:

  • Replace California's death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole; 
  • Require inmates to work and pay restitution to the victims' compensation fund; and
  • Allocate $100 million over three years to solve more murders and rapes in California and protect our families.

The SAFE California Act is an important law because:

  • Murders and rapists need to be caught and brought to justice. But 46% of murders and 56% of rapes go unsolved every year. We need to use our limited resources to investigate and solve these crimes and keep our families safe, not on our broken death penalty. 
  • We remain at risk of executing an innocent. Nationally, 139 people have been freed from death row after they were found to be innocent. With the death penalty, we will always risk executing innocent people. 
  • Since California voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1978, our state has spent $4 billion dollars to execute only 13 people. If the SAFE California Act is passed by voters on November 6, 2012, we will save $1 billion in only five years.

The SAFE California Act will prevail at the ballot because:

  • Californians are changing their minds about the death penalty every day. A July 2011 poll found that 54% of likely voters support replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. 
  • We have the tremendous support from Death Penalty Focus members LIKE YOU. In order to qualify for the ballot, we need to gather signatures and WE NEED YOUR HELP TO DO SO. Please sign up today, or let me know personally that you would like to join me and the rest of the DPF staff in gathering signatures. You can email me at

For additional information and to receive updates from the campaign, please visit the Taxpayers for Justice website at

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DPF Welcomes Ana Zamora!

Posted by Stefanie on August 31st, 2011

Ana has long admired the work of Death Penalty Focus and is honored and excited to join this organization as Program Director. Ana graduated from Mills College in 2005 with a Bachelor's Degree in Political, Legal, Economic Analysis and a Minor in Sociology. Two weeks after graduation, Ana was selected for a job that would really change her life. The California Appellate Project (CAP) hired Ana, as their new Training and Mitigation Coordinator. At CAP Ana had the opportunity to work alongside expert capital defense lawyers and learn about California's dysfunctional death penalty system. After working at CAP for four years, Ana was hired to work with Natasha Minsker at the ACLU of Northern California on their Death Penalty Policy Project. Ana will continue to work with the ACLU's death penalty project part-time. Ana lives in sunny Oakland with her wife, Stacey, and her cat named Turtle.

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West Memphis 3 Freed

Posted by Stefanie on August 24th, 2011

We are thrilled to report that after 18 years, Damien Echols has been released from death row and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley have been freed from prison. The three men, known as the West Memphis Three, have always maintained their innocence. Read the New York Times breaking story.

We'd like to thank the nearly ten thousand supporters who took action last year on behalf of Damien Echols and the other two men.

Your action made a difference.
You helped save three lives--one from execution and two from a lifetime behind bars.

Thank you for standing up for justice and speaking out for the innocent. These victories remind us that we are winning. With your continued activism and financial support, we are confident that the wins will continue.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often repeated the saying, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Thanks to your actions and your support, we know that we will keep bending that arc and we will end the death penalty in our lifetime.

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Dear Governor Brown, We Are Turning the Tide!

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on August 11th, 2011

On August 11, 1977, a fateful day in your life as the Governor of
California and mine as a young activist, I was a guest at the
apartment of my friend Miriam Rothschild in San Francisco, the
very epitome of a devoted volunteer to her community. We knew
each other through our involvement in the Northern California
Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and together watched on
television the drama that was unfolding at the State Capitol.

The members of the Assembly were casting their votes as to
whether or not to override your principled and courageous veto of
Senate Bill 155, a bill which, among other things, restored
capital punishment in California. The moment of truth came when
an Assembly member from the Los Angeles area announced that he
could not disregard the evident wishes of his constituents, and
cast the vote providing a 2/3 majority to enact the bill over
your veto.

Today, happily, there is another bill making its way through the
legislature to uphold the ethical and human values which you so
courageously defended 34 years ago, and to do so with direct
participation by the voters themselves: Senate Bill 490,

This bill, if enacted and signed by you, will let the people of
California decide at the ballot box in 2012 whether or not to
impose permanent imprisonment or life without parole (LWOP)
as the uniform and consistent penalty for all capital offenses in
California. Under California law, LWOP prisoners are required to
perform labor and thus make restitution to the victims of crimes,
including family members of murder victims, so SB 490 actually
means "LWOP plus restitution," or LWOP+R for short.

How can we hope to abolish the death penalty in California at the
ballot box, after a list of defeats with which we are both
intimately familiar? For example, Proposition 17 in 1972 amended
our State Constitution to overturn a landmark decision of the
California Supreme Court holding capital punishment to be a
"cruel or unusual punishment."

In 1978, urged to go beyond the Legislature's "weak-kneed death
penalty law" passed over your veto the previous year, voters
passed Proposition 7, vastly expanding the range of "special
circumstances" murders subject to death or LWOP.

And in 1986, your appointee Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and
two of her colleagues were denied confirmation by the voters
after a highly politicized and often acrimonious campaign largely
focused on the Court's reluctance to affirm death sentences.

Given this history, the very idea of "winning at the ballot box"
seems to call for a serious sanity check. During the 25 years
since the calamitous judicial reconfirmation election of 1986,
three trends have been percolating beneath the surface of public
opinion which now give us the momentum to turn the tide.

First, as early as 1989, Professor Craig Haney at University of
California Santa Cruz found through a scientific survey of
eligible California voters that although 79% expressed "support"
for the death penalty, 67% actually preferred the alternative of
LWOP plus labor and restitution (LWOP+R), with only 26% still
preferring the death penalty when this choice was offered. A
follow-up survey in 2009 by Professor Haney and associates showed
very similar results, with 66% "support" for the death penalty
when no alternative was offered, but again only 26% when the
alternative choice was LWOP+R.

The same trend was revealed in a poll just this April by David
Binder Research, in which 63% of Californians surveyed favored a
proposal to convert the sentences of all current Death Row
prisoners -- around 715 -- to LWOP+R. Majorities of Democrats,
Republicans, and Independents supported this measure as a way of
saving a billion dollars every five or six years at this time of
budgetary crisis in our State.

The second trend which has been percolating beneath the surface
for more than two decades is a recognition of the full cost of
the death penalty, fiscal and human, and the devastating
opportunity costs our futile machinery of legal death inflicts on
other law enforcement measures which can effectively reduce crime
and punish its perpetrators more swiftly and consistently.

As early as March 1988, only a year and half after Chief Justice
Rose Bird was forced by voters to leave the Court, Stephen
Magagnini of the Sacramento Bee documented how California could
save $90 million each year by replacing the death penalty with

At that time, Magagnini estimated that at an extra cost of $90
million a year, and assuming the historical rate of about six
executions each year, taxpayers would be paying about $15 million
per execution. Two decades later, to borrow Mahatma Gandhi's memorable
phrase, we can say this estimate was rather a "Himalayan
miscalculation" -- in the low direction!

Since 1977, California has had 13 executions at a cost placed by
federal Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School
Professor Paula Mitchell at $4 billion. That amounts to about
$300 million dollars per execution, or 20 times what seemed to
Magagnini and others a reasonable estimate in 1988. A report by
question of costs, "And today, with California's urgent budget crisis in law
enforcement and victims' services as well as other vital areas,
we simply can't afford this kind of extravagance!"

Getting more cops and homicide investigators on the beat, solving
more "cold case" homicides and improving on the clearance rates
for murder now at only around 50% in many of our counties,
keeping services for victims adequately funded, and "connecting
the dots" to prevent some of these homicides and other violent
crimes -- these are agendas the public can understand. And SB 490
gives them the opportunity to rethink priorities in a situation
the voters didn't have before them in 1972, 1978, or 1986.

Finally, there's a third trend that's been quietly percolating
over these eventful decades: a recognition that LWOP actually
means what it says in California! Over 3700 California prisoners
have received this sentence, with only a handful released because
of the one "escape clause" we should want to keep: later it had
been discovered that they were actually innocent of the offenses
for which they had been convicted. LWOP, like the death penalty,
spells permanent incarceration and death in prison -- but allows
room for correcting the rare but not unknown miscarriage of

Today, 34 years after the fateful passage of SB 155 which you
courageously sought to avert, we are turning the tide: SB 490
points the way to victory through the ballot box. On this day, as
victory is within our sight, we might remember the words of the
late Justice Stanley Mosk, a great California jurist and tireless
public servant under you and your father:

     "The day will come when all mankind will deem killing to be
      immoral, whether committed by one individual or many
      individuals organized into a state."

To these words we may add that many Californians ready to support
the death penalty in the abstract may nevertheless prefer, as
polls have shown for some 20 years, a more swift, reliable, and
cost-effective system of justice based on LWOP+R. Please join us
in reaching out to these citizens, who can become our partners in
victory through SB 490 and the democratic choice it offers.


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Author of CA Death Penalty Law Has Change of Heart

Posted by Stefanie on July 21st, 2011

Los Angeles Times columnist and radio personality, Patt Morrison, interviewed Donald Heller, author of California's current death penalty statute, on July 16th about why he no longer supports capital punishment. In the interview Heller cites "the enormous toll it [takes] on people involved" including defense lawyers, judges and other players in the system, the high cost and the risk of executing the innocent.

Heller, a former prosecutor, only became vocal about his opposition to the death penalty after the execution of Thomas Thompson in 1998, a man Heller believes was innocent. 

He admits, "The way I look at it, what I created can and may already have resulted in the death of an innocent person. And that's pretty heavy."

"The thing I regret most that I cannot change -- except by what I do now -- was drafting the death penalty initiative," Heller laments. 

Read the full interview with Donald Heller

Running for Justice, Not From It!

Posted by Emily Hammagren, Guest Blogger on June 30th, 2011

I'm training to run a marathon (26.2 miles) in Walla Walla, Washington on October 16th, 2011 to raise funds for the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP) and increase awareness of the damage that the death penalty does to our society. While the Walla Walla run is small compared to those in big cities, the location is significant in that Walla Walla is the home of Washington's death row for men and the state's execution chamber.

Funds raised go towards WCADP's outreach and education campaigns throughout Washington state.

It's time for Washington to join the growing list of states like New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois that have realized that they can do better than offer victims' families the false promise of haling and closure from the death penalty.  This year, Washington was among a dozen states that held hearings on legislative bills to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.

I hope you will consider joining me in supporting a tremendous organization and an important mission. Please consider making a gift today.

Also, it's not too late to join me in Walla Walla to run the marathon, half marathon, 10K, or to cheer everyone on!

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Sen. Leahy introduces Consular Notification Compliance Act

Posted by James Brockway on June 23rd, 2011

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has introduced an important new bill that will protect the rights of foreign nationals accused of capital crimes.  The proposed legislation, titled the Consular Notification Compliance Act (CNCA), will give federal courts jurisdiction to review cases of death row inmates who were not afforded access to their country of origin’s consulate after their arrest, a right which they are guaranteed under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which the U.S. has been a signatory since 1969.  The CNCA would also take steps to ensure that Court’s mandate that individuals are provided with consular access in future cases.  There are currently 133 foreign nationals on death rows in the U.S., only 53 of whom received proper notification.

What might at first glance appear to be a matter of arcane bureaucratic procedure has become a pressing issue, as Texas is scheduled to execute one of the men desperately in need of protection by the CNCA at the beginning of next month.  Humberto Leal Jr., a Mexican citizen, was sentenced to death for the 1994 rape and murder of 16-year-old Adria Sauceda.  Mr. Leal was not informed of his right to consular assistance until well after the legal proceedings against him had begun, and was consequently shackled with an unprepared public defender who was unable to challenge the numerous flaws in the scientific evidence and inconsistent testimony that was at the core of the prosecution’s case.  What makes his turn of events all the more tragic is that, according to Sandra Babcock, a Northwestern University Law Professor who is defending Mr. Leal on appeal, “this was an eminently defendable case, and I don’t think it would have been a capital case if he’d had decent trial counsel.”

While Mr. Leal’s travails have received the most public attention, he is far from alone in his predicament.  In 2004, Mexico brought a complaint against Texas in the International Court of Justice, alleging the more than 50 of its citizens were awaiting execution despite never having been informed of their Vienna Convention rights.  The ICJ ruled in Mexico’s favor, and ordered review of the cases in question.  Then-President George W. Bush wrote a presidential memorandum urging states to comply with the decision, but Texas insisted on going its own way, arguing that neither the international court nor the U.S. President had the authority to interfere in what they characterized as a state matter.  The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed, issuing a ruling in Medellin v. Texas that held that the treaty was unable to compel judicial review absent further legislative action by the congress.  Senator Leahy’s proposed bill would do just that.

If enacted, the CNCA would not only serve as a meaningful demonstration of the U.S.’s commitment to the rights of foreign prisoners and the larger framework of international law more generally, but would also provide immediate safety benefits to the millions of Americans living abroad.  Just last year, 6,600 U.S. citizens were arrested in foreign countries, and in many instances access to our Consulate was the key to their receiving adequate legal representation.  The longer we continue to flaunt our obligations under the Vienna Convention, the more likely it is that other nations will feel compelled to treat American nationals the same way.

While Senator Leahy has taken an important first step towards putting an end to injustices like those suffered by Humberto Leal, he could still be executed on July 7th before the CNCA advances.  Please take a moment to tell Governor Rick Perry that the execution should not proceed.

The Death Penalty is Prohibitively Expensive

Posted by Zac Stone on June 21st, 2011

A new study released this week puts the cost of maintaining the death penalty in California higher than it has ever been estimated in the past. Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell, the study's authors, calculated that California taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, and estimate the annual cost of pursuing executions to be $184 million more than pursuing life without parole.

The report, facilitated by previously unavailable records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, details exactly where and why seeking the death penalty costs so much more than life, as in the extra $200,000 spent per capital case on jury selection, the upwards of $300,000 spent on attorneys representing each inmate on appeal, and the more than $100,000 extra it costs to incarcerate a death row inmate within more secure housing (though other states have had success in "mainstreaming" death row inmates with the general population).

Few reasonable people would argue that $184 million is not a lot of money to be spending annually on just over 700 people, death row inmates or otherwise; the San Jose Mercury News deems it "fiscal insanity," and we tend to agree. Look at it one way and California has spent $308 million to execute each of the 13 men that have faced execution here since 1978.

The study's authors offer three options for ending the current cycle, which threatens to bankrupt the state (further) if not dramatically altered. The authors contend that another $85 million annually would fund California's death penalty system efficiently, while reducing the number of death-eligible crimes would potentially save taxpayers $55 million each year. By abolishing the death penalty altogether, Alarcon and Mitchell suggest California would save one billion dollars every five or six years.

There are simple ways to invest money that will reap great rewards in security for our communities. Early childhood education has proven time and again to have long-lasting effects on at-risk families. One decades-long study coming out of Chicago last week shows kids who attended an established preschool program there completed high school at higher rates and had a 28 percent lower incarceration rate than those who did not attend the program. Long-term programs that continue into second or third grade have an even more pronounced effect, with 36 percent fewer ending up in prison. Afterschool programs have similar effects, keeping at-risk kids off the streets during violent juvenile crime prime time, and allowing their parents to remain productive members of the workforce.

The programs that work most effectively at reducing crime and improving general wellbeing in our communities will have to wait for increased funding, however, until our leaders come to their senses and stop throwing more money than most of us can fathom at a system that seems, at best, designed to fail. If a $300 million execution doesn't meet Californians' threshold of "fiscal insanity," we shudder to think what does.
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Finding an Executioner in India

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on June 16th, 2011

A recent New York Times article discussed the difficulty one Indian state is having finding a hangman for an upcoming execution. With the president rejecting a last chance appeal for a murderer in the state of Assam, prison officials are now being forced to find an executioner. The only problem is that no one has answered the ad. With executions a rarity in India (the last in the entire country of 1.2 billion people was in 2004), very few certified hangmen can be found. Officials in Assam eventually began looking to neighboring states for help, but continued to be stymied. While the fate of the condemned man is up in the air pending the search, Indian defense lawyers are raising issues that find resonance with many of the flaws in the American system.

After a capital sentence is handed down in India, a mercy appeal goes before the country’s president. This appeal does not have to be decided within a set time frame. The petition for the condemned man in Assam sat pending on the desks of three presidents before it was finally rejected last month. This snail’s pace has led some defense lawyers to launch a counter intuitive argument: “The man was given capital punishment but not 14 years of imprisonment,” the condemned man’s lawyer argued. “For the last 12 years, you are virtually killing him every day.”

“You are keeping a man with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head,” another defense lawyer remarked. This argument contends that forcing someone to wait years or decades for their execution amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Ostensibly, this argument is calling for either the abolition of capital punishment or the streamlining of the process. Interestingly, the American death penalty faces many of the same problems the Indian system does.

In the United States, inmates often wait longer than 15 years before being executed, with some inmates having waited for more than 30 years. Applying the Indian argument, these inmates have been sentenced to death, not 30 years imprisonment and then death. While streamlining the process may sound appealing, other blog entries have noted the many instances where new exculpatory evidence comes to light and exonerates condemned inmates after years of incarceration.

The current lengthy appeals process serves a purpose – it ensures, among other things, that the condemned inmate indeed was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. Doing away with this process would dramatically increase the likelihood of an innocent person being executed. If we agree that a lengthy appeals process is oftentimes necessary, yet that such a wait accompanied by the uncertainty of death amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, perhaps the only ethical alternative is abolition.

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Humberto Leal's Execution Would be a Flagrant Violation of International Law

Posted by Stefanie on June 15th, 2011

Humberto Leal Jr. is slated to be executed by the state of Texas on July 7th.  His death will represent a grave miscarriage of justice as he received his sentence in clear violation of international law, which mandates that foreign nationals, like Mr. Leal, must be advised of their right to consular assistance after they have been arrested and charged.  

The absence of such consultation has had particularly devastating consequences for Mr. Leal, as he received grossly inadequate representation and could be executed for a crime that he may not have committed.

Read the rest of this post on Care2.

Sign the petition!

Firme la petición!

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Remembering Norman Redlich and David Baldus

Posted by on June 15th, 2011

This week has seen the loss of two important figures in the fight against the death penalty. On Friday, Norman Redlich, the former dean of the New York University Law School and a pioneer in the use of pro bono defense for death row inmates, passed away from complications of Parkinson's disease; he was eighty five. Mr. Redlich was joined a few days later by seventy five year old David C. Baldus, a long time professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, and the main author of a series of influential studies regarding racial disparities in the application of the death penalty.

Mr. Redlich, a graduate of Williams College and Yale Law School, joined the faculty of NYU in 1960, and held the position of dean from 1974 to 1988. Mr. Redlich demonstrated heart-felt concern for the rights of indigent defendants from the beginning of his tenure at the law school, and began providing death row inmates at New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility with free legal representation, ultimately saving five men from the electric chair in the period between 1960 and 1963.

Mr. Redlich continued his commitment to public interest lawyering as head of the Law School, hiring renowned a capital defense attorney Anthony Amsterdam as a professor, and tasking him with creating a clinical education program for NYU students which would provide them with the skills and resources necessary for public service. Because of Dean Redlich's support, the program, while unprecedented at the time, has since been modeled by law schools nation wide, and has helped establish NYU as one of the country's premier centers for the teaching of public interest law, a position it holds to this day.

In addition to his considerable contributions to the fight against the death penalty, Mr. Redlich was a member of the Warren Commission tasked with investigating the death of President John F. Kennedy. In this capacity, Mr. Redlich took the lead in creating the "single bullet theory" which helped to confirm the case against Lee Harvey Oswald as the President's sole assassin. Mr. Redlich also served as New York's corporation counsel and provided legal representation for a number of people blacklisted for refusing to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Professor David Baldus was a pioneer in the use of cutting edge social science research to help make the case against capital punishment. Educated at Darmouth College, the University of Pittsburgh, and Yale Law School, Professor Baldus taught at the University of Iowa Law School from 1969 until his passing.

In 1983, Professor Baldus and his colleagues, Charles Pulaski and George Woodworth, undertook a massive study of the role of race in capital punishment, and their work's impact would reach all the way to our nation's highest court. Using data from over 2000 Georgia murder cases, their research looked into what, if any difference, race makes when it comes to capital punishment. They subjected their data to rigorous analysis, controlling for 230 different non-race variables that could have also had an effect on sentencing, and came to the conclusion that defendants charged with killing white victims were more than four times more likely to receive a death sentence than if their victim had been black. They also found that black defendants were almost two times more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts, and this disparity spiked even further when the victim also happened to be white.

This study ended up being at the heart of 1978 Supreme Court case McCleskey v. Kemp in which the Justices had to determine whether the consistent bias identified by Professor Baldus' work was sufficient to render Georgia's death penalty unconstitutional. In a controversial 5-4 decision, the Court rejected McCleskey's claim, and delivered an opinion that has been described as "the Dred Scott decision of our time."

In addition to his 1983 work, Professor Baldus was the author of two books on the death penalty, Statistical Proof of Discrimination and Equal Justice and the Death Penalty. He also served as Lieutenant in the Army Security Agency during the late 1950s.

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Pentobarbital Supply Now in Doubt

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on June 13th, 2011

Lundbeck, the only pharmaceutical company that supplies pentobarbital to the United States, has said that it will take steps to ensure that its drug will no longer be used for lethal injection. Lundbeck expressed moral opposition to the use of its product in executions. In a statement, the company declared that use of the drug in lethal injection proceedings "contradicts everything we are in business to do - provide therapies that improve people's lives." This news comes after a self-initiated industry boycott of sodium thiopental left states scrambling to find a replacement drug. Pentobarbital filled this void, but questions have been raised over the constitutionality of the drug. Little research has been conducted about any possible pain condemned inmates might have to endure with this new combination of drugs; inmates are paralyzed during the proceedings and cannot, therefore, physically express pain. If Lundbeck's boycott is effective, states will have to find yet another alternative drug.

Pentobarbital has been commonly used as an animal euthanasia drug. Recently there was a row over this issue in Texas when the ACLU published a report juxtaposing the state's regulation of veterinarians and prison officials: "Veterinarians in Texas are prohibited from using the combination of drugs that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has deemed suitable for the execution of human beings," the report finds. The paper also details the numerous medical and professional qualifications veterinarians must have before they are allowed to euthanize animals. Prison officials, however, are granted a tremendous amount of discretion and autonomy when planning and administering a lethal injection execution. The report concludes that "it is no exaggeration to say that Texas regulates the euthanasia of reptiles more strictly than the execution of human beings."

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Ohio Governor Commutes Sentence of Innocent Man

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on June 9th, 2011

Yesterday, Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted the death sentence of Shawn Hawkins to life without the possibility of parole.  The Governor’s decision follows last month’s unanimous recommendation for clemency by the Ohio Parole Board.  Mr. Hawkins was sentenced to die for the 1989 murders of teenagers Terrence Richard and Diamond Marteen in Mount Healthy, Ohio.  Mr. Hawkins has persistently and vigorously maintained his innocence.

Kasich’s commutation is his first since taking office in January, and the Republican Governor was careful to point out that his decision was not meant to relieve Hawkins of responsibility for his alleged crimes.  Instead, the Governor decided that the “precise details of [Mr. Hawkins] role are frustratingly unclear to the point that Ohio shouldn't deliver the ultimate penalty in this case."  Gov. Kasich went out his way to emphasize that he had no doubt that Mr. Hawkins played some “material role” in the crime, and seemed satisfied that a life sentence would be a sufficiently harsh punishment given the ambiguities surrounding the case.

While it is undoubtedly great news to hear that Mr. Hawkins life will be spared, Governor Kasich’s decision to stop short of a full pardon is troubling given that the evidence points strongly towards Mr. Hawkins’ actual innocence.  Unfortunately, a combination of inadequate representation and incomplete investigation of other potential suspects has already forced Shawn Hawkins to spend half his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

The most significant problem with the case against Shawn Hawkins concerns Henry Brown, the state’s one eyewitness to the crime.  Since Mr. Hawkins’ original arrest, Mr. Brown has repeatedly altered elements of his testimony, providing police with wildly differing, and frequently contradictory, accounts of the murders.  Mr. Brown was given full immunity in exchange for his agreement to testify against Mr. Hawkins, though it is looking more and more like the police made the wrong deal: a year after his original testimony, Brown committed an armed robbery eerily similar to the one that took the lives of Mr. Richard and Mr. Marteen, and is currently serving four to seven years for aggravated robbery.  In taking the word of Mr. Brown, the state also willfully ignored testimony from several alibi witnesses who indicated Mr. Hawkins was with them at the time of the crime, and also chose to not follow several leads indicating there were two other men present at the crime scene.  

Other oversights include the police’s ‘loss’ of all the notes they took during their interrogation of Mr. Hawkins, as well as the reliance on dubious forensic science to link one of his finger prints to the crime, even though the prosecution has no ability to prove when the print was left and Mr. Hawkins freely admits he was in the victims’ car earlier, when they were both alive.

Given all of these issues, it is fair to ask how Mr. Hawkins was convicted in the first place.  The answer to that question lies with Mr. Hawkins’ trial lawyer, whose overconfidence and lack of preparation caused him to make a series of tactical errors which culminated in a death sentence for his client.  These missteps included failure to investigate many of the discrepancies discussed above, making Mr. Hawkins testify in his own defense, and then aggressively antagonizing the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial because of his frustration with their guilty verdict.  Shawn has been paying for these mistakes for over twenty years, and this week’s commutation must seem like rather weak compensation given the magnitude of his attorney’s negligence.  

While Shawn Hawkins no longer faces a death sentence, he still has to contend with spending the rest of his life in prison despite the severe doubts surrounding his guilt.  In some ways, his new sentence of life without the possibility of parole will make seeking his release more difficult, as the state will no longer be obligated to help finance his appeals, and the Governor may be less likely to grant a pardon after having already made what he views as a compromise.  Mr. Hawkins is not alone in facing this problem, as last year’s commutation of the sentence of Kevin Keith proves.  Like Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Keith had a strong claim of actual innocence which was met with commutation by Ohio’s then-Governor, Ted Strickland.  For the past year, Mr. Keith has been struggling to secure further advances in his case, though no relief seems to be insight for the foreseeable future.  

Fortunately for Mr. Hawkins, he seems to have a network of supporters who are dedicated to seeing that "Shawn is someday a free man”.  As his appellate attorney, Anthony G. Covatta, said after Governor Kasich’s decision, “The struggle continues. The dream will never die."  We can only hope that he is right.

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A Turning Point?

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on June 1st, 2011

In recent weeks we have been documenting the increasing level of difficulty prisons are having procuring sodium thiopental, a drug used in lethal injection proceedings. After the last US supplier stopped production of the execution drug on moral grounds, states have had to turn to overseas providers, including pharmaceutical companies in Italy, Germany, Taiwan, the UK, and India to provide the drug. In order to import the drug, however, many states circumvented federal law by not declaring the shipments to the DEA. It seems that this crisis is reaching a critical point. A previous blog post detailed the DEA’s seizure of Georgia’s stockpile of sodium thiopental after the state had illegally imported the drug from an overseas supplier. Recently, however, the DEA has widened the scope of its probe into these shipments, and has now seized state stockpiles from Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Nebraska, and South Dakota have also received shipments of sodium thiopental from overseas providers, but their stockpiles were not raided.

The revelation that these states illegally obtained their sodium thiopental has sparked outrage in death penalty watchdog groups. Natasha Minsker, the Death Penalty Policy Director for the ACLU of California, commented on the implications of this news: “The DEA records demonstrate that Arizona and other states broke the law. We cannot understand why the DEA has failed to act but has allowed the states to keep these illegal and dangerous drugs. When state officials break the law in order to carry out an execution, it makes a mockery of our justice system and puts us all at risk. State and federal officials must follow and enforce the law—that’s their duty and what the public expects and deserves.” Ms. Minsker filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the DEA and received the documents that suggested inconsistencies between the publicly known shipment records and the actual supplies of the drugs.

From here, it’s hard to tell where this story might lead. In response to the shortage of sodium thiopental, one state adopted a new lethal injection protocol, where inmates are executed with a single drug that has normally been reserved for animal euthanasia. If more states follow suit and adopt a similar procedure, there might be room for a legal challenge to this method of execution, potentially resulting in increased delays while the Courts study whether or not the single drug method violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. If this is the case, such a review might cause another de facto moratorium similar to the one currently in effect in California. 

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Juries Lead Pennsylvania Away From Capital Punishment

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on June 1st, 2011

With citizens across the country taking active efforts to end capital punishment, progress is being made in Pennsylvania, though it has not come via the typical legislative jockeying and heated policy debate.  Instead, the state’s jurors are quietly working to make Pennsylvania, which still has the death penalty on its books, abolitionist in practice, as they have become increasingly unwilling to hand out death sentences in capital murder cases.

As noted in a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, juries have handed down death sentences in only 3% of roughly 2,000 eligible cases since 2007, resulting in only eight additions to death row in that time.  While its population of 215 gives Pennsylvania the fourth largest death row in the country, most of that number have been awaiting execution for decades, as only three people have been executed since capital punishment’s reinstatement in 1978, and no sentences have been carried out since 1999.

While it is difficult to know how much the recent decrease in capital convictions has to do with the system’s perceived lack of credibility, it does seem to be the case that jurors are comfortable with dispensing sentences of life with out parole.  Given how rarely used and slow-moving Pennsylvania’s death penalty is, it is hard to argue with this decision, as life achieves the same goals as capital punishment while sparing the enormous investment of resources that goes into what is often a decade’s long appeals process.   

While juries are producing change from behind the scenes, the public debate over Pennsylvania’s death penalty has begun to pick up as well.  State Senator Stewart Greenleaf has sponsored a proposal to begin a study commission that will look into the costs associated with the policy.  This is a significant first step as information on Pennsylvania’s death penalty is fairly difficult to obtain, and forcing officials to come out in the open will shine a light on the system which should only galvanize further reforms.  Senator Greenleaf also plans to sponsor legislation that would eliminate the 60 day time limit placed on finding new, non-DNA evidence, for post-conviction appeals, thereby allowing for prisoners with claims of actual innocence to have a fair chance to prove their claims in court, instead of having them dismissed on banal technicalities.

Amongst the more prominent supporters of these efforts is former Governor, and long time death penalty proponent, Ed Rendell, who on his last day in office challenged the legislature to either take concrete steps to make the death penalty an effective law enforcement tool, or abandon it all together.  According to Governor Rendell, the interminable delays associated with the penalty eviscerate its deterrent effects, and it is unclear if such problems are even fixable.

Taken together, these developments should give us hope that Pennsylvania is beginning to look seriously at replacing the death penalty with more effective alternatives.  Moreover, its juries’ increased preference for life without parole points to a promising trend of reduced capital sentencing which should make it that much easier to end the death penalty once in for all, while in the mean time preventing further bloating of already over-crowded death rows across the country.

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