The Death Penalty Blog

25th Annual DPF Awards Dinner pays tribute to exonerees; honors
Sir Richard Branson, Dolores Huerta and Jackson Browne

Posted by on May 12th, 2016

Richard Branson speaking at the 25th Annual Death Penalty Focus Awards Dinner - death penalty, california, repeal the death penalty, end the death penalty, abolish the death penalty, justice that works

“Enough of a flawed system that disproportionately targets minorities; that cannot prevent the killing of innocents; that doesn’t have any impact on crime rates, that is a colossal waste of taxpayer money, and most of all a system that delivers neither justice nor closure,” said Sir Richard Branson, in a speech at the Death Penalty Focus 25th Annual Awards Dinner last week.

DPF awarded Sir Richard its Abolition Award for his lifelong opposition to the death penalty, and his commitment to the efforts to abolish it in the United States. In his acceptance speech, he endorsed the Justice That Works Act of 2016, which repeals the death penalty in California and replaces it with a sentence of life without parole, and has qualified for the November ballot. The initiative is sponsored by Taxpayers for Sentencing Reform, and is spearheaded by our president Mike Farrell, who is on leave from DPF to work on the campaign.

“Ending the death penalty in California will be a signal no one can ignore,” Sir Richard said when he accepted his award. “It means that the people of America’s most populous state have had enough.”

Dolores Huerta speaking at the 25th Annual Death Penalty Focus Awards Dinner - death penalty, california, repeal the death penalty, end the death penalty, abolish the death penalty, justice that works

Dolores Huerta, who received the DPF Humanitarian Award, and Jackson Browne, who was presented with the DPF Justice in the Arts and Media Award, both spoke of their commitment to seeing the death penalty abolished not just in California in November, but in the rest of the United States as well.

Joan Baez speaking at the 25th Annual Death Penalty Focus Awards Dinner - death penalty, california, repeal the death penalty, end the death penalty, abolish the death penalty, justice that works

And Joan Baez, before presenting Jackson Browne with his award, thrilled the hundreds of DPF supporters in the room by singing, a cappella, a verse of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Death Penalty Exonerees at the 25th Annual Death Penalty Focus Awards Dinner - death penalty, california, repeal the death penalty, end the death penalty, abolish the death penalty, justice that works, wtiness to innocence

DPF was proud to welcome almost 20 exonerees. Ten of them had been sentenced to die before being found innocent and released from death row. The others had been sentenced to life before proving their innocence. Between them they served 399 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

The evening, DPF’s biggest fundraising event of the year, was held at the historic Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, and drew almost 350 guests, all committed to one goal: abolishing the death penalty in the United States.

We have plenty of photos posted on our Facebook page. Click on the album below to see more pictures from the event and behind the scenes.

Dr. King Opposed Capital Punishment

Posted by Death Penalty Focus on January 8th, 2016

As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., let’s recognize his denunciation of capital punishment.

Share this picture by clicking here and show your support for an end to the death penalty.

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The Arbitrary Execution of Tom Thompson

Posted by Andy Love on

Thomas Thompson was sentenced to death based on jailhouse snitch testimony and bogus evidence introduced by a corrupt prosecutor

I knew if I wanted to see Tom one last time I had to leave for the prison soon. It was already late in the afternoon and at 6:00 pm, he would be taken from the visiting area to the death watch cell for his last meal. There he would remain until 25 minutes before midnight when he would be led to the execution chamber next door. There wasn’t anything left for me to do anyway, so I left my San Francisco office and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Quentin State Prison.

The parking lot to the East Gate of the prison is just a few yards from the San Francisco Bay. Even after countless visits the contrast between the sweeping vista of the coastline and the grim reality inside the prison’s peach colored concrete walls is striking. I passed through security and walked slowly down the long path leading to the Main Visiting Room. I was let in through the two sets of heavy doors, and saw Tom, surrounded by family and close friends, presiding over a gathering that could only be described as surreal. Tom had been on death row for fourteen years, and the prison guards who knew him well seemed as traumatized as everyone else. They were overly solicitous, awkward, almost apologetic. Instead of the usual vending machine fare there was a platter of cold cuts for sandwiches and sodas on a long table. Although in a matter of hours he was going to be strapped to a gurney and lethally injected with poison, it was Tom who was trying to keep things light, with the corny jokes and over-the-top impersonations – Steve Martin as the “Wild and Crazy Guy” and Mike Myers as Austin Powers – with which I had become all too familiar.

Behind his silliness, Tom was thoroughly depleted from being the center of a spectacle that surrounded him as the fifth man about to be executed in California since the death penalty was re-instituted in 1977. A physically healthy 43 year old was going through the process of dying, and it was disorienting and  unbearably stressful. He had been enduring emotionally-charged visits from his friends and loved ones, for whom he felt the need to constantly perform. He met often with me and other members of the legal team to approve a list of execution witnesses (he was entitled to five) and to be kept abreast of last minute developments – of which there were few. He had been under 24 hour surveillance from guards for the past five days, making sleep impossible. In accordance with prison rules, he had been stripped of his “non-legal property.” He had no reading or writing material. He was denied his art supplies, which he had used for surprisingly impressive paintings over the years, including a portrait of Billy Idol he had given me a few months earlier.

We had been preparing for this moment for far too long, having gone through a similar process one year earlier when, despite a stay of execution, prison personnel proceeded methodically with its execution protocol until, with six hours to spare, they were finally assured that the Supreme Court would not disturb the stay. There was not much left to say. Tom, although hampered by waist chains, enveloped me as best he could in a big bear hug, and thanked me for all I had done. He told me that I should feel proud about putting up such a good and righteous fight. I replied that it had been an honor to have worked with him. I exchanged tearful goodbyes with his sister and mother. I walked out of the prison and returned to my office where I continued to file court papers with little chance of success and railed to reporters about injustice. All to no avail. Six minutes after midnight on July 14, 1998, Tom Thompson was dead.

*          *          *          *

Tom Thompson had no criminal record or history of violence when he was tried for the murder of Ginger Fleischli in 1984.  He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death based largely on the false testimony of jailhouse snitches and the failure of his trial lawyer to challenge the bogus evidence of rape invented by the prosecutor.  (The rape special-circumstance provided the basis for the death penalty.)

An explosive scandal involving the Orange County D.A.'s office has only recently shed light on the extent of the unethical behavior routinely engaged in by its prosecutors to secure death sentences.  And Michael Jacobs -- the prosecutor in Tom's case -- has been revealed to be one of the more notorious.  Jacobs was fired in 2001 for insubordination and dishonesty.  The litany of his misconduct over several cases includes presenting false testimony, using unreliable informants, and hiding exculpatory evidence -- all of which he did in Tom's case.  And there was more.  Jacobs used contradictory evidence and arguments in two separate trials to convict first Tom and then Tom's roommate, David Leitch -- the victim's former boyfriend and a man with a violent past -- on inconsistent theories.  The reliability of many other Orange County cases has been called into question since the D.A. scandal broke -- and one murder conviction based on the false testimony of one of the very same snitches who testified against Tom has been reversed.  Of course, this all comes too late for Tom.

There are approximately 750 men and women on death row in California.  Tom Thompson is one of 13 who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated almost 40 years ago.  While others sentenced to death around the same time languished on death row (several of whom continue to languish), his case jumped to the head of the class for no discernible reason.  And then a series of safeguards designed to ensure that the death penalty is fairly and reliably imposed -- state and federal appellate review and clemency -- completely and utterly failed. 

All death sentences in California are automatically reviewed by the California Supreme Court.  Tom's appeal was heard in 1988, two years after three liberal justices were recalled by the voters and replaced by an ultra-conservative governor with ultra-conservative justices.  The Court was thereby transformed almost overnight from one that was appropriately open to reversing cases based on meritorious claims to one that essentially rubber-stamped death penalty cases by finding virtually every error alleged in virtually every case to be harmless.  Accordingly, Tom's conviction and sentence were affirmed.

The case then moved to federal court, where in 1995, Tom's death sentence and rape-related charges were reversed based on a finding of ineffective assistance of trial counsel for counsel's inexcusable failure to adequately rebut the snitch testimony and other evidence that purported to establish rape.  The state appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. 

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the composition of the randomly drawn three-judge panel in the federal appellate courts is the most important factor in determining the life and death of a condemned inmate.  If at least two of the judges on the panel are essentially liberal, the death penalty will likely be reversed; if they are conservative it usually will be upheld. It is simply luck of the draw and, unfortunately, Tom got a very, very bad draw.  Despite what at the time was a majority of liberal judges on the Ninth Circuit, all three judges on Tom’s panel were extremely conservative Reagan appointees.  It was therefore not surprising -- but wholly arbitrary -- when the panel reversed the district court's ruling in 1996.

To mitigate such arbitrariness is another important safeguard -- en banc review, in which an 11-judge Ninth Circuit panel has the option to review a 3-judge panel's ruling.  Court papers were filed requesting rehearing en banc, which can only be granted after one of the active judges who sits on the Ninth Circuit calls for a vote and a majority of those judges then vote in favor of rehearing. Given the number of liberal judges on the Ninth Circuit at that time it would be unusual for there not to at least be one judge calling for a vote in a death penalty case.  However, on March 6, 1997, an order issued stating that the request for en banc review was denied because not one judge asked for a vote to rehear the case. After the U.S. Supreme Court denied review, an execution date was set for August 5, 1997. 

In the months that followed, evidence surfaced that corroborated Tom's long-standing version of events -- that he and the victim had consensual sex on the night of her death.  This included a statement from Tom's roommate, David Leitch, that was never turned over to the defense.  Such evidence completely undermined the prosecutor's rape-murder theory and called into question the credibility and integrity of the prosecutor's entire case.   Unfortunately, presenting this new evidence was severely hampered by a federal law that had just been enacted in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.  The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") was designed to thwart "frivolous appeals" but it cast far too wide a net and created virtually insurmountable hurdles to presenting new claims in federal court.  Another problem was that the federal judge who had originally granted relief had passed away and the case was assigned to a far more conservative judge who was completely unreceptive to this new evidence and rejected the claim. 

Another purported safeguard is clemency, a process in which the governor is empowered to act when the judicial system breaks down.  No California governor since Ronald Reagan, however, has seen fit to grant clemency in a capital case, and in Tom's case, Governor Pete Wilson proved no exception. Despite powerful and emotional pleas from family and loved ones, the lack of any prior criminal history, testimonials from prison guards about Tom's exemplary conduct at San Quentin, and serious doubts raised regarding the fairness of the trial and the subsequent judicial proceedings, Wilson denied clemency.  He ultimately based his decision on nothing more than a determination that Tom could not prove his innocence ("But at the end of it all, I am absolutely confident that he raped and murdered Ginger Fleischli").

On August 3, 1997, one night before Tom's execution was scheduled to take place, an 11-judge en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit issued a dramatic order.  The court explained that it was taking the highly unusual step of ruling after its earlier denial of review because of “exceptional circumstances” caused by a malfunction in the court’s review process -- a glitch in the court's communication system that resulted in the failure of any judge voting to review the case en banc the first time -- and because “we are convinced that the panel committed fundamental errors of law that would result in a manifest injustice.” The Ninth Circuit then vacated the three-judge panel opinion, and reversed the death sentence, holding that trial counsel's ineffectiveness was prejudicial and that the prosecutor’s use of fundamentally inconsistent theories at Tom and David’s separate trials was fundamentally unfair.

The state sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, while the prison proceeded with its execution protocol.  With six hours to spare, the Supreme Court refused the state's invitation to summarily reverse the Ninth Circuit and allow the execution to go forward.  But it did agree to hear the state's appeal on December 9, 1997. 

The grand stairway of 53 steps, the massive Corinthian marble columns, the grandeur of the Great Hall, and all the pomp and circumstance attending the Supreme Court are surely designed to give lawyers a sense of awe and wonder as they go through the red-curtained entrance into the courtroom and sit just a few short feet from the nine justices.  One comes completely down to earth, however, as it becomes clear that at least a majority of those justices intend to make sure one’s client is executed. This seemed like a foregone conclusion in Tom’s case. When the high court decides to intervene in a Ninth Circuit case that has reversed a death sentence it is usually not to approve its ruling.  And thus, another safeguard proved ephemeral.  On April 29, 1998, by a bare 5-to-4 majority, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and ordered it to reinstate Tom's death sentence. Justice Kennedy (a former Ninth Circuit judge, himself) wrote the majority opinion, finding a “grave abuse of discretion” in the Ninth Circuit’s handling of  the case, and stressed the importance of “finality” of state judgments. Thus, even though Tom was not at fault, the Court rejected Tom’s claims on the technicality that the Ninth Circuit had waited too long to grant en banc review.  The Court never even addressed the validity of Tom’s substantive claims.  A new execution date was set for July 14, 1998.

The last hope was the separate appeal of the federal judge's rejection of the newly discovered evidence of innocence.  The case was heard by the same en banc panel that had granted relief earlier, but the court was no longer receptive.  It seemed chastened by the lashing it had received by the Supreme Court and shackled by the barriers to relief imposed by AEDPA.  At 11:00 p.m., on July 11, 1998, the court denied relief. Tom was executed two nights later.

*          *          *          *

Tom Thompson was represented by a trial lawyer who failed to take the steps required to afford minimally competent representation in a capital case. He was convicted and sentenced to death in a county where a cynical prosecutor could pick and choose among jail inmates who were willing and able to manufacture evidence to support the prosecution’s theory of the case. His death sentence was affirmed by a state court that at the time refused to meaningfully review death penalty cases. Relief in federal court was first denied because he unluckily drew a conservative panel and later because of legal technicalities that had nothing to do with the merits of his claims. Despite obtaining new evidence that suggested he was innocent, Tom was precluded from obtaining a new trial because of insurmountable legal procedures and the paramount importance of closure. 

Almost twenty years later, poor defense lawyers, unsavory prosecutors, disinterested courts and impenetrable procedural hurdles remain all too common elements in capital cases.  They are inherent aspects of an irreparably broken system.  Apart from the barbarity of the death penalty, the absence of meaningful safeguards to ensure that death sentences are not unreliably and arbitrarily imposed and carried out should be deeply disturbing to anyone who cares about fairness and justice. 

Andy Love is a partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd.  He previously represented California death row inmates for 25 years.  He blogs at Fair and Unbalanced Blog where this piece was originally posted. Andy is on the Board of Directors of Taxpayers for Sentencing Reform, the organization sponsoring the  effort to put a voter initiative on the 2016 ballot that would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  To find out more, to volunteer and/or to donate click on:  Justice That Works.
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“Ethnic Adjustment” and the death penalty

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It’s called ethnic adjustment. “This practice is a symptom of a dysfunctional death penalty system where prosecutors seek to ‘win’ by executing the mentally disabled and people of color at all costs,” says Robert M. Sanger, a senior partner at the Santa Barbara law firm, Sanger Swysen & Dunkle. “Borrowing from Justice Blackmun, this is a part of the machinery of death. It is a disturbing part. And it is all the more reason to end the death penalty.”

Sanger explains that statistically, some minorities tend to perform worse on tests than Caucasians, so “prosecutors argue that this discrepancy is not based on intellectual inferiority, but rather that there are testing biases and behavioral factors that cause minority test-takers to underperform.

"Thus . . . minority IQ scores should be increased to control for these biases and behavioral factors.”

In a 2013 case (Hernandez v. Stephens), the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a state court can find a defendant is not intellectually disabled if his IQ score if brought up to the bottom of the non-disabled range after being “scaled to Mexican norms.” Ramiro Hernandez, convicted of killing his employer in Texas, had IQ test scores in the 50s and low 60s, one of which was ethnically adjusted to a 70. The U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal in April 2014, and he was executed two weeks later.

In a recently published paper, “IQ, Intelligence Testing, ‘Ethnic Adjustments’ and Atkins” (, Sanger explores how prosecution expert witnesses are testifying to “ethnic adjustment” in death penalty cases to artificially raise minority defendants’ IQ scores. These witnesses add five to 15 points to the IQ score of people of color, disqualifying them from protection by the Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida decisions prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled, and qualifying them for death.

This testimony is being presented all over the country, says Sanger, “and remarkably, is still left unresolved by the courts, including the California and United States Supreme Courts.”

A Message from Mike Farrell

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Dear Friends,

I want you to know that I have taken a leave of absence as President of DPF in order to investigate the possibility of an initiative campaign to end the use of state killing in California next year. To that end, last month I filed a proposed ballot initiative entitled The Justice That Works Act of 2016. This is a very exciting prospect, but it will take a lot of work before it’s clear we can launch a full-dress campaign. Happily, I received heartfelt endorsement and support from across the country in response to the filing, including some generous financial commitments.

Though I am the official Proponent of this measure, a great many dedicated people who have been working toward abolition for decades are with me. Led by Death Penalty Focus, we are organizing a great team: Professionals and volunteers, consultants and pollsters, attorneys, death penalty scholars, religious leaders, people from across the political spectrum, and scores of dedicated abolitionists.

I believe the time is right to bring the matter back to the voters. As abolitionists we have to continue the fight to end the death penalty. The number of lives at stake on California’s death row compels it. Pope Francis’ recent condemnation of the death penalty is sure to rededicate Catholics and all people of faith to end state killing throughout the country and it’s up to us to build on the growing momentum to do so.

We’ve done a sober and realistic assessment of the likelihood of success in 2016, including polling voters and analyzing the challenge of raising the necessary financial support. We’ve developed a strategy that involves key political leaders, law enforcement, faith-based and victims’ groups, and exonerees. If we build a strong base of support and continue to poll well, elected officials may even be persuaded to support repeal.

If we continue to raise the funding needed to mount a strong campaign, we can abolish state killing in California. We feel the enormous presence of the 749 men and women on California's death row and must do all we can to spare them and anyone who may yet be sentenced to death. If abolition is ever to come about it will be through a collective and multi-faceted attack on capital punishment—from the courtroom to the classroom, from legislation to public education, from the soap box to the ballot box—and there is a role for all to play.

I am deeply grateful to be part of this movement and I thank each of you for all you have done and will continue to do to end state killing. You have our support and, going forward, we very much appreciate yours.

Mike Farrell, Proponent
The Justice that Works Act of 2016

Human Rights Group Issues Report on Kevin Cooper case

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on October 19th, 2015

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has issued a report on the case of Kevin Cooper, a man who has been locked up on San Quentin’s Death Row since 1985.

A petition was filed in 2011 by Cooper’s attorneys Norman Hile and Katie DeWitt arguing that Cooper was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. It outlined the mishandling of the crime scene, the false evidence presented by the district attorney, and the fact that the sheriff’s department failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. It also argued there was planted and mishandled evidence and that he was represented by ineffective counsel and faced racial discrimination.

The commission examined the contentions and found that the United States is responsible for violating Cooper's right to equality before the law, the right to a fair trial, and the right to due process of the law.

“Should the state carry out the execution of Mr. Cooper, it would be committing a serious and irreparable violation of the basic right to life recognized in Article 1 of the American Declaration,” the report states.

Further, the commission recommended that the United States review Kevin Cooper’s trial and sentence in accordance with the guarantees of due process and a fair trial.

The commission also recommended the United States adopt a moratorium on all executions.

The IACHR was created in 1959 to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere. It is composed of seven members who review individual petitions and monitor human rights in member states.

You can find more information on the Kevin Cooper case here.

Lethal Injection News Across the Nation

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on October 18th, 2015

MONTANA – A judge ruled earlier this month that the lethal injection drug protocol did not comply with state law and ordered an indefinite halt to all executions. District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena said the state’s current method is not an “ultra-fast-acting barbiturate,” as required and the statute must be modified. The lawsuit was brought by Montana’s two death-row inmates, Ronald Smith and William Gollehon.

OKLAHOMA – An autopsy for Charles Warner, who was executed in Oklahoma in January, shows the state used the wrong drug in the killing. Officials claim they didn’t discover the mistake until they were going to execute Richard Glossip. He was spared in the final minutes. It’s the latest controversy in the state that had all executions put on hold for nine months after the botched execution of Clatyon Lockett. "We cannot trust Oklahoma to get it right or to tell the truth. The State’s disclosure that it used potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride during the execution of Charles Warner yet again raises serious questions about the ability of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to carry out executions,” said Dale Baich, an attorney in Glossip v. Gross.

ARKANSAS -- After a move to restart its death penalty process and setting the date for eight executions, the Arkansas Department of Corrections has been ordered to identify the manufacturer, seller and distributor of its lethal injection drugs. Circuit Judge Wendell Griffin stayed the executions and gave the DOC until Oct. 21 to identify or object. Lawyers for the inmates argue the law that shields the state from revealing drug manufacturers and sellers is unconstitutional. Arkansas hasn’t killed an inmate since 2005.

MISSOURI – Four days before his scheduled execution, the governor of Missouri commuted the death sentence of Kimber Edwards to life without parole. Prosecutors called for death in an alleged murder for hire killing of his ex wife. But the actual killer recanted his story and said he acted alone. Edwards has a form of autism that makes him vulnerable to falsely confessing when subjected to coercive police tactics.

VIRGINA – On Oct. 1, Alfredo Prieto was killed by the state of Virginia before the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on whether to grant a stay in his drug challenge. His attorney, Robert Lee, said the justices were still considering the challenge to Virginia’s lethal injection protocol when the Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution.

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Death Penalty Cases at the Supreme Court

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on October 13th, 2015

It’s a busy term for the death penalty at the United States Supreme Court. A total of six cases will be considered by the justices over the next two months. They primarily involve procedural questions and none appear to have the ability to abolish capital punishment entirely, a subject the justices were divided on last term.

Two cases out of Kansas were heard October 7. One dealt with sentencing requirements and jury instructions in consolidated cases. The Kansas Supreme Court overturned the death sentences of two brothers tried together saying the Eighth Amendment requires individual consideration of a defendant at capital sentencing hearings and that the court violated the requirement when it allowed a joint penalty proceeding.

The justices that day also reviewed a technical question about whether jury instructions for the penalty phase of a capital trial was consistent with the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Lawyers for three inmates argued the jury instructions were ambiguous and the jurors were not allowed to properly consider mitigating factors that might have justified a sentence of life without parole.

The justices heard a Florida case on October 13 that will could decide whether judges can sentence someone to death without a unanimous determination by the jury. That state has one of the nation’s highest rates of death sentences and executions. But attorneys for inmates argue the way it sentences criminals is unconstitutional.

In most states, a 12-member jury must agree on all the aggravating factors that can lead to a death sentence. There are two states where only 10 of 12 must agree. But in Florida, only a simple majority is needed. In the case of Timothy Hurst, a judge sentenced him to death after jurors voted 7-5. His lawyer argues the system violates both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments.

In another case out of Louisiana, justices were asked to decide whether a 2012 decision barring mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile killers is retroactive. Henry Montgomery was 17 when he committed a crime is 69 now and seeking parole. He is one of 2,000 people serving sentences of life without parole for murders committed before the age of 18. Many of them automatically received the sentence.

In November, the justices will consider whether prosecutors in Georgia violated the rule against racial selection of juries by striking all four black prospective jurors in the case of Timothy Foster. Later in the term, the court will consider the case of Terrance Williams, a death row inmate who says an elected state judge who upheld his murder conviction should have recused himself from hearing a capital conviction appeal because of his prior role as a prosecutor in the case.

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World Day Against the Death Penalty

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13th Annual World Day Against the Death Penalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, visit the World Coalition's World Day 2015 page.

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Abolitionist of the Month: Pope Francis

Posted by Mary Kate DeLucco on October 7th, 2015

“The Golden Rule ... reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”

It was the first time a reigning Pope has ever addressed the U.S. Congress. And in that historic speech on September 24, Pope Francis’s call was clear: Abolish the death penalty.
“Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” he said.
He also reaffirmed the stated position of U.S. Catholic Bishops that “the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and circumstances.”

“Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” Francis said.
HIs message was unconditional: If you believe that every life is sacred, as Catholicism and many other religions teach, you cannot support the death penalty. That message could be why Catholic U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas did not attend the speech. All three are staunch supporters of the death penalty. In fact, at a Pew Research Center conference on religion and the death penalty in 2002, Scalia said, “The choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation rather than simply ignoring duly enacted constitutional laws and sabotaging the death penalty.” And he said, “You want to have a fair death penalty? You kill, you die. That’s fair.”

Whether the Pope’s remarks will affect how the Supreme Court, and especially its five conservative Catholic justices, will rule on death penalty appeals remains to be seen. But as U.C. Hastings College of the Law Professor Rory Little points out on (, in the term that opened this month, the Supreme Court will review five Eighth Amendment issues, four of them death penalty, meaning “This term may be the biggest Eighth Amendment term in 40 years.”

And he believes that the review of these five cases also “signals...the deep cultural (as well as economic and federalism) concerns that Americans in general seem to have regarding capital punishment.”

There is no question the Pope’s call for abolition was significant. It engendered headlines, and much analysis in the media. Its repercussions remain to be seen. But as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who co-chaired the 2002 Pew Conference at which Justice Scalia spoke, has said, “I think the religious community has played an enormous role in having people question their consciences about where they stand on the death penalty.”

Pope Francis is continuing his efforts to play a role in abolishing capital punishment. Just days after returning to Rome from his trip to the United States, he sent a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles asking it to commute the sentence of Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on the state’s death row. "While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendaner has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy," the Pope wrote.

The Board did not commute Gissendaner’s sentence, and in fact, executed her shortly after midnight on September 29th, hours after the board received Pope Francis’s letter. She was the first woman in 70 years to be executed in Georgia.

But Pope Francis is not giving up. It was revealed that he had sent another letter on September 14 asking Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to commute the death sentence of Richard Glossip, who was scheduled to be executed on September 30. Like the letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, it was written on behalf of Pope Francis by Archbishop Carlo Vigano, and stated, “Together with Pope Francis, I believe that a commutation of Mr. Glossip’s sentence would give clearer witness to the value and dignity of every person’s life, and would contribute to a society more cognizant of the mercy that God has bestowed upon us all.”

Glossip’s execution was delayed, but not because of the Pope’s appeal. FIrst, Governor Fallin issued a 37-day stay to give the state time to address “last minute questions ...raised about Oklahoma’s execution protocol and the chemicals used for lethal injection.” A day after Fallin’s order, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a staunch defender of the death penalty, asked the state Court of Criminal Appeals to postpone all scheduled executions, including two others slated for October, citing the state’s problems in its drug protocols.

So the tide may be turning. In a speech he gave at Rhodes College in Memphis two days before Pope Francis’s address to Congress, Scalia told the students he “wouldn't be surprised” if the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in the near future.

Pope Francis calls for Global Abolition

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 24th, 2015

Pope Francis called for global abolition of the death penalty during his address to Congress today, saying human life must be protected and defended at every stage of development.

“Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” the Pope said.

“Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

The call comes at an important time. Arkansas is preparing to resume executions after a 10-year hiatus. And the states of Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas all have executions set in the next two months.

Read the Pope's full speech here.

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Arkansas Sets Execution Dates for Eight Men

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 23rd, 2015

After a decade long hiatus, the state of Arkansas plans to resume executions in October and recently set dates for eight inmates to die.

Governor Asa Hutchinson (former director of the DEA) announced execution dates after Attorney General Leslie Rutledge requested it be done as quickly as possible. She said the inmates ran out of appeals and assured the governor the state has the drugs to carry out the executions.

The 10-year delay was largely due to drug shortages and court challenges to execution procedures.

In August, the state of Arkansas approved a new lethal injection protocol. It’s a three-drug cocktail that includes midazolam, the drug blamed for botched executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma. Despite concerns about whether the drug is constitutional, the Supreme Court narrowly rejected a challenge and approved its continued use in June.

It is unknown how the Arkansas Department of Corrections got the drugs or what company they were purchased from. A state secrecy law allows the state to shield the name of the supplier. Attorney Jeff Rosenzweig, who represents nine death row inmates, has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that secrecy law.

The planned resumption of executions in Arkansas comes at a time when states across the nation have stopped executions and public support continues to drop.

There are currently 34 inmates on death row in Arkansas.

Here are the names and execution dates for the eight inmates scheduled to die.

October 21
Bruce Earl Ward
Don William Davis

November 3
Terrick Terrell Nooner
Stacey Eugene Johnson

December 14
Marcel Wayne Williams
Jack Harold Jones

January 14
Jason McGehee
Kenneth Williams

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Stay of Execution granted for Richard Glossip

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the stay order.

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The Fight to Save Richard Glossip

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World Day Against the Death Penalty

Posted by David Crawford on September 9th, 2015

13th Annual World Day Against the Death Penalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death Penalty Focus Week

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

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

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

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

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

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A Farewell to Julian Bond

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 9th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They helped you learn how to be free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each one reach one until all are registered and voting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Poetry of Wiley Bridgeman

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 9th, 2015

Fancy Colors

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

My Woman

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

The Subject Compared

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

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Jones v. Davis: An Update

Posted by Courtney Minick on September 9th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abolitionist of the Month: Jimmy Carter

Posted by Mary Kate DeLucco on September 9th, 2015

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

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

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

At a national death penalty symposium sponsored by the Carter Center and the American Bar Association in 2013, Carter said, “In complete honesty, when I was governor I was not nearly as concerned about the unfairness of the application of the death penalty as I am now. I know much more now. I was looking at it from a much more parochial point of view – I didn’t see the injustice of it as I do now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arkansas Attorney General Eager to Start Killing

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on September 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are currently 34 inmates on death row in Arkansas.

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California's Death Penalty Back on Trial

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

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

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

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

In March, several organizations including Death Penalty Focus submitted amicus briefs rebutting the attorney general’s argument. Our brief demonstrates that many death row inmates are denied their right to due process by the delays and their families suffer with them. It is estimated that for every death sentence, eight family members are profoundly affected. They deal with guilt, stigma and social isolation that can lead to depression, hopelessness, even suicide. These hidden victims often aren’t able to ever find out if their loved ones are actually innocent.

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

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

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

Watch a live stream of the oral arguments.

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Connecticut Abolishes the Death Penalty and Closes Death Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Breyer's Powerful Death Penalty Dissent

Posted by Stephen Rohde on July 16th, 2015

This article originally appeared in the

Daily Journal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guest Column by Robyn Barbour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the future is not set for my kids.

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In Memoriam

Posted by on July 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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In Memoriam

Posted by on July 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

Abolitionist of the Month Ernie Chambers

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Ernie Chambers does not give up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ernie Chambers is ready.

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

Supreme Court Ruling Sets Clock Ticking

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on June 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

Texas Man Freed from Death Row

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

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

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

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

He becomes the 154th person freed from Death Row.

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Conservative Nebraska Abolishes Death Penalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tsarnaev verdict shows three fatal flaws of death penalty

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

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

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

1. Cruel and unusual punishment -- for the jurors

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Cruel and unusual punishment -- for the victims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Human rights: The company we keep

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

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

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

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

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DPF 24th Annual Awards Dinner draws Supporters, Activists and Exonerees

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The Death Penalty Focus 24th Annual Awards Dinner was a huge success. It was an evening filled with hope and inspiration and even a bit of comedy thanks to our fabulous host John Fugelsang. Each year, Death Penalty Focus honors those who have committed themselves to standing up for justice. This year, nearly 350 people joined us.

It was one of the most successful dinners in DPF history as a result of generous donations from guests and sponsors. We raised over $200,000. Of that, nearly $70,000 came in on the evening of the dinner, in part because of a $30,000 matching grant provided by co-chairs Sherry and Leo Frumkin, Sarah Timberman and Ed Redlich, and Eugenie Ross-Leming and Robert Singer. That’s more than double our most successful fund drive to date!

In all honesty, our awardees stole the show by providing us with a powerful reminder of why our fight must continue. We were thrilled to honor three exonerees from Ohio and the attorneys who fought for their freedom. Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson came to Beverly Hills to receive our Rose Elizabeth Bird Commitment to Justice Award. These three men spent over a century in prison after they were sentenced to die for a crime they did not commit. They were released last November, thanks to the Innocence Project and their attorneys Terry Gilbert, Mark Godsey, Brian Howe, and David Mills.

Our Abolition Award went to Assistant Federal Public Defender Dale Baich, who has spent nearly three decades defending the constitutional rights of death row inmates. He is currently representing three inmates scheduled for execution in Oklahoma, a case the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing and we are all closely watching.

We were also thrilled to present an award to Alex Gibney, Brad Hebert and Laura Michalchyshyn, executive producers of Death Row Stories, a CNN series exploring cases that address hard questions about capital punishment. And we had a touching tribute to Rabbi Leonard Beerman, a founding DPF board member who posthumously received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

President Jimmy Carter and Actor and Sundance Founder Robert Redford both sent messages congratulating the honorees.

All in all, a fabulous evening. DPF offers our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the following sponsors:


Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares
Sherry and Leo Frumkin
Ed Redlich and Sarah Timberman
Eugenie Ross-Leming and Robert Singer


Clark & Rice, A Professional Corporation
CNN, Jigsaw Productions & Sundance Productions
Larry Flynt Publications
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
Kristin Zethren & Chic Wolk
Sue & Dick Wollack


All Saints Church
G.F. Bunting and Co
Robert Greenwald & Heidi Frey
Courtney Minick & Brandon Long


Dr. Joan Willens Beerman
Mary Broderick, Linda Fox & Virginia Van Zandt
Reed Smith, LLP & Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent
Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange

Individual Supporters:

The Aubuchon/Felton Families
Devra Breslow
Richard E. Carlburg
Eula Eikerenkoetter
Nancy Cotton & John Given
Susannah Grant & Christopher Henriksen
Carol Hopkins
Stacy Mallicoat
Manatt, Phelps and Phillips
The Moore-MacMillan Family
Thomas R. Parker & Karen Broumand
Rabbi Steven & Didi Carr Reuben
Terry Richards, Founder Veterans Against the Death Penalty
Jonathan B. Steiner
Nancy Stephens & Rick Rosenthal, The Rosenthal Foundation
Themis Fund
Colleen Tracy
Linda & Jay Walsh


Emanuel Forster
Mary Ellen Glaser
Hilary Naylor
Mark & Marjorie Sheinberg

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Support for Capital Punishment Continues to Drop

Posted by on April 16th, 2015

A report released today by the Pew Research Center shows that support for the death penalty is at a 40 year low. The number of people who support capital punishment dropped another six percent since 2011.

In addition, more Americans are becoming aware of the risk of executing the wrongfully convicted. A record 71 percent of Americans now believe there is a possibility that an innocent person will be put to death. This news comes days after Anthony Hinton was released from Death Row, becoming the 152nd person on the list of death row exonerees.

The study also showed that 61 percent of Americans believe the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes. And more than half say that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death.

Read the full report here.

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LA Times says it was wrong about McVeigh, opposes death penalty

Posted by on April 9th, 2015

We applaud the LA Times Editorial Board for taking a difficult stand against the death penalty in the federal case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

This was a terrible crime that killed three and wounded hundreds, and it is understandable that Americans want vengeance. But we must remember that the death penalty is not a deterrent for would be terrorists and there is no benefit to society in avenging death with more death.

The Times Board admits regret in calling for the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001, saying “that editorial was written out of passion, not justice.”

In the years since McVeigh’s execution, support for the death penalty in this country has fallen. Since 1996, support has dropped by 23 percentage points, reaching its lowest level in almost two decades, according to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center. In just the past eight years, six states have abolished the death penalty and five have imposed moratoriums.

As the Times Board said, Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole because “killing another human being is immoral, whether by bomb or by lethal injection.”

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Three more San Quentin inmates die

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on March 27th, 2015

In just two weeks, three inmates on San Quentin’s Death Row have died. Though sentenced to death, they weren’t executed but join the overwhelming number who die while awaiting appellate review.

More than 1,000 people have been sentenced to death in California, and only 13 have been executed since 1967. At least 67 inmates have died from natural causes (two are still pending autopsies). Records show that all but one had a direct appeal or habeas petition still pending, and one third died before the state Supreme Court could even review their conviction or sentence on direct appeal.

This again proves the dysfunction of the California death penalty system. In July, Judge Cormac Carney ruled the decades-long delays are unconstitutional and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Death Penalty Focus supports that ruling and recently joined other groups in submitting an amicus brief on behalf of the inmate whose sentence was overturned. The brief demonstrates that many Death Row inmates are denied their right to due process by the mistakes that characterize the state’s death penalty.

Not only does capital punishment waste taxpayer dollars but the delays often preclude inmates who are innocent or denied a fair trial from obtaining relief because they die before the judicial review is complete. It’s time to get rid of this expensive, ineffective and broken system.

Pictured is Teofilo Medina Jr., who died March 22 at the age of 70.

Read the amicus brief filed by Death Penalty Focus.

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Arizona Woman Exonerated after 22 Years

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An Arizona judge recently dismissed all charges against Debra Milke, but only after she spent half her life in a cell on Death Row.

Her conviction was based on evidence from Armando Saldate, a corrupt police detective who is now retired. He was known to lie under oath and violate suspects’ rights during interrogations. Prosecutors failed to mention this at trial and Milke was convicted based on his testimony.

She spent 22 years in prison.

“The constitution requires a fair trial,” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “This never happened in Milke’s case.”

Milke brings to 151 the number of people freed from Death Row. We wonder how many others there are.

As long as we have the death penalty, executing innocent people remains a possibility.

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Pope Francis Condemns the Death Penalty

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Pope Francis has again condemned the death penalty, saying it is unacceptable, unjust, and inhumane.

During a visit from the delegation of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, the Pope reaffirmed his abolitionist stance and said that no crime warrants killing and the suffering that comes with it.

Capital punishment "is cruel, inhuman and degrading, as is the anxiety that precedes the moment of execution and the terrible wait between the sentence and the application of the punishment, a 'torture' which, in the name of a just process, usually lasts many years and, in awaiting death, leads to sickness and insanity."

The pope said the death penalty brings no justice to victims of crime and encourages revenge. Quoting Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “The Idiot”, the pontiff said “murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands."

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DPF files brief on behalf of Ernest Jones

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on March 9th, 2015

On Friday, a number of groups filed legal briefs on behalf of Ernest Jones, the Death Row inmate whose sentence was overturned by Judge Cormac Carney in July. In that ruling, the judge declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional saying the delays caused by the dysfunctional system amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed that case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying the process provides protections to defendants. The Death Penalty Focus amicus brief rebuts the Attorney General’s argument by demonstrating that many Death Row inmates are denied their right to due process by the delays, dysfunction and mistakes that characterize California’s death penalty system.

And their families suffer with them. During decades-long delays, inmates are more likely to die than have their arguments heard. If they do live long enough for a new trial, their mental health has often deteriorated or the evidence is lost or stale.

It is estimated that for every death sentence, eight family members are profoundly affected. Families of inmates on Death Row deal with guilt, stigma and social isolation that can lead to depression, hopelessness, even suicide. These hidden victims often aren’t able to ever find out if their loved ones are actually innocent.

And as California’s Death Row population rises, the delays grow longer. The current average of 30 years will soon reach 40 and 500 more inmates will die before the courts rule on their cases.

The DPF brief outlines three cases:

Ralph International Thomas. He was granted a new trial due to ineffective counsel 30 years after his death sentence but was unable to benefit because his health deteriorated. He died in custody and his mother had to deal with the guilt of not being able to afford private counsel.

Dennis Lawly. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic who represented himself when he was sentenced to death. Another man later confessed and the murder weapon was found but Mr. Lawly was awaiting a hearing when he died in his cell in San Quentin. His mother blames herself for his deluded defense. She said he wouldn’t have gone to death row if he had a lawyer. She’ll never know if he would have been exonerated.

Jarvis Masters. He was 19 when he was sentenced to 23 years. Although he completed his sentence, he was not released because he received a death sentence in connection with the murder of correctional officer. Another man confessed but Mr. Masters’ appeal is still pending.

Read the amicus brief filed by Death Penalty Focus.

Death Penalty Talk in LA

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Death Penalty Focus President Mike Farrell will participate in a panel discussion before the Dead Man Walking opera in Santa Monica on March 7 and 8.

The opera is based on Sister Helen Prejean’s seminal nonfiction book.

The panel will be moderated by DPF Board Member and past president of ACLU of Southern California Stephen Rohde.

For more information and tickets, visit the Broad Stage website.

DPF In the News!

Posted by on February 20th, 2015

Twenty years ago, DPF President Mike Farrell appealed for clemency for Anthony Apanovitch. Last week, a judge threw out the murder conviction of the man who spent three decades on Death Row.

"His case is yet another lesson in why the death penalty makes no sense -- for the accused, for taxpayers, or for the families of victims."

Read Mike Farrell's guest column in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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Attorney General Calls for Moratorium

Posted by on February 18th, 2015

The states of Florida and Alabama have delayed pending executions until the Supreme Court rules on whether the lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional.

This comes after the high court decided last month to review an Oklahoma case after botched executions led to concerns about the effectiveness of the drug midazolam as a sedative.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he believes there should be a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment until a decision is made by the Supreme Court on whether the procedure violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

A decision is expected in June. Until then, all states with similar protocols should join Florida and Alabama and halt executions.

But the complicated questions about whether it’s possible to humanely execute people are just another indication that the system is irreparable. In addition to the issue of constitutionality, a majority of Americans prefer a sentence of life in prison because of the high cost of the death penalty and proven risk of executing innocent people.

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Pennsylvania Governor Halts Executions

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on February 13th, 2015

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on the death penalty today, saying the system is flawed, ineffective, unjust, and expensive.

The state houses the fifth largest Death Row in the nation with 186 prisoners. In nearly 40 years, there have been 434 signed death warrants but only three inmates have been executed.

“This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system,” Wolf wrote in a statement explaining his decision. “It is drawn out, expensive and painful for all involved.”

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated including six men in Pennsylvania. Wolf said the system is “riddled with flaws making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible.”

In noting further defects of the capital punishment system, Wolf pointed to strong evidence that a person is more likely to be charged with a capital offense and sentenced to death if he is poor, a minority, and particularly where the victim of the crime was white.

The governor’s action is part of a growing movement to abandon the practice. Pennsylvania becomes the fourth state to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, in addition to six states that have abolished capital punishment since 2007.

Wolf will await a report from a task force on capital punishment and until then will grant reprieves each time an execution is scheduled. The first temporary reprieve was given to Terrence Williams who was set to be executed on March 4.

"I think Governor Wolf realizes that when you have more exonerated prisoners than executed prisoners in 30 years, the system handed to you was obviously broken," said Nick Yarris, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 21 years on Pennsylvania’s Death Row.

Like Pennsylvania, California has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on a system that serves no useful purpose, risks executing an innocent person, and is increasingly losing support. According to the California Legislative Analyst Office, replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole would save the state $130 million each year. Yet California continues to house the largest death row population in the country.

The only option is to end this costly charade and replace it with a system that is fair and consistent for everyone.

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Abolitionist Dean Smith Dies

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on February 9th, 2015

Dean Smith, who died Saturday at the age of 83, was a legendary basketball coach best known for his 36 years coaching at the University of North Carolina where he oversaw a record number of victories.

He was also adamant about ending capital punishment in this country.

He visited prisons, counseled inmates on Death Row, and even confronted the North Carolina governor on the issue.

"You're a murderer,” Smith said to Gov. Jim Hunt during a meeting in Raleigh. He then pointed at an aide and others in the room. “And you’re a murderer, and you’re a murderer, and I'm a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers."

It’s not often that a famous sports figure addresses such a political topic, but Smith made his lifelong opposition to the death penalty known. He said numerous times that state sponsored killing is immoral, unfair, and ineffective.

"I do not condone any violence against any of God's children, and that is why I am opposed to the death penalty," he wrote in his autobiography.

Smith often invoked his religious beliefs to explain his opposition, but he also spoke about his fears of killing the innocent and the racial injustice of the court system.

Support for capital punishment is dropping nationwide, and we hope to see more public figures take a stand like Coach Smith.

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Midazolam Still Being Used in Executions

Posted by Joe Steinberger on January 26th, 2015

The state of Oklahoma killed Charles Warner on January 15. He was the first inmate executed by lethal injection in the state since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett last April that Prison Warden Anita Trammell described as a “bloody mess.”

After Lockett’s mishandled execution, Oklahoma put a moratorium on the death penalty in order to review what went wrong. The state spent over $70,000 renovating its death chamber and another $34,000 to purchase new equipment.

However, the state still included the controversial sedative midazolam in its three drug formula. The use of midazolam came under fire following the bungled executions of Lockett, Dennis McGuire in Ohio and Joseph Wood in Arizona last year. McGuire gasped for air and loudly snorted during his 15 minute long execution, while Wood was injected 15 times and took nearly two hours to die.

Attorneys for Warner sent an appeal to the Supreme Court requesting they stay the execution until the new protocol could be evaluated. But the court denied the appeal with a 5-4 vote.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that she was, “deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol.” She went on to add, “I believe that we should have granted petitioners’ application for stay. The questions before us are especially important now, given States’ increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution.”

In Lockett’s execution, the state administered 100 milligrams of midazolam. This dosage was increased to 500 milligrams for Warner, but serious doubt still remains that upping the dosage fixes the problem.

According to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, “(Oklahoma) has not shown that this drug will produce the necessary level of unconsciousness to allow the execution to proceed humanely.”

During Warner’s appeal, scientific evidence was presented which showed that midazolam is subject to a “ceiling effect” meaning that once it reaches a saturation point, regardless of the dosage amount, it is no longer able to keep someone unconscious. It is likely for this reason that the Food and Drug Administration has not approved it for use as an anesthetic.

One of the main issues that states have faced in recent years, as was made evident in the four botched executions in 2014, is the increased difficulty in finding pharmaceutical companies that are willing to have their drugs used in the death penalty process. Until 2010, states used a drug formula that included the anesthetic sodium thiopental. However, this drug is no longer manufactured in the United States and European companies refuse to sell it for use in executions.

As a result, states are resorting to using new formulas and untested doses. Some states are even obtaining drugs from compounding pharmacies. These companies do not go through the same approval process for their products that large manufacturers face, leading to concerns about the safety and effectiveness of their products.

Unfortunately, these difficulties have not resulted in states re-thinking capital punishment, but have led them to finding alternative ways to carry out executions.

In Oklahoma, the state legislature is expected to consider legislation that would make the use of nitrogen gas, a legal execution method. Tennessee passed a law in 2014 to reinstate the electric chair if the state is unable to secure lethal injection drugs. While in Utah, the state is considering bringing back the firing squad.

It is deeply troubling that while support for capital punishment continues to fall, states are resorting to extreme measures to keep this egregious practice alive. It is becoming more and more difficult for states to find “humane” ways to carry out capital punishment, which is just a further illustration that the death penalty system in our country is not working and is getting worse.

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Rabbi Leonard Beerman

April 9,1921 - Dec. 24, 2014

Posted by Mike Farrell on January 23rd, 2015

A Great Man

Rabbi Leonard Beerman, a founding board member of Death Penalty Focus who remained an active, supportive and inspiring member of our organization over many years, passed away on Christmas Eve. His loss leaves a hole in the universe.

A man always willing to challenge himself, Leonard joined the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and then the Haganah in 1947, during the founding of the State of Israel. He did so, he once said, to determine whether he was truly a pacifist or a simply a coward. He was, it is abundantly clear, a pacifist; he remained committed to his principles for the rest of his long and extraordinary life.

The founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, Leonard was a leader in the ecumenical movement, a founder of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam and every one since, a courageous supporter of civil and human rights, workers’ rights, gay rights and a champion of all those society overlooks or leaves behind.

Those of us fortunate enough to know Leonard saw in him an example of what it is possible to be in our world: a person of conscience and courage, one who not only had principles but lived by them, one who, if he had fears, refused to allow them to dictate his choices.

Leonard’s love of life, his brilliance, his clarity of vision, his generosity of spirit, his subtle wit, his utter honesty, his candor and his incredible courage combined to make this simple, unassuming man the moral compass for everyone he encountered. Agree with him or not, like him or not – and few could not – the vitality of his naked love for the unquenchable, indomitable human spirit left everyone touched, moved, and, even if secretly, awash in admiration.

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart said, "There's a place in the soul that neither time nor flesh nor no created thing can ever touch." That place was well known to Leonard. It is what he spoke to when saying, “An awakened conscience is what makes a human being, what makes a woman or a man more nearly a companion of God.”

Leonard saw that as we struggle to ensure that the value of every human person is recognized and honored, we move toward the light. As we insist that the least among us, even the violent, who because of the horror they inflict on others are spat upon, defiled, stripped of human status and condemned as “monsters,” still deserve to have the divine spark of humanity that is buried – no matter how deeply - within them recognized, embraced, cherished and nurtured.

He knew that “this life, this world, for all of its cynicism and stupidity and anguish, is also a place where change is possible…” As he saw it, “the most deeply human and courageous men and women are those who in life and death dare to submit themselves to the ordeal of walking through the fire of selfhood, of loneliness and tragedy.” And this led him to understand that “to be most deeply human is to be among the resisters, to resist whatever demeans life.”
Leonard Beerman will remain the moral compass for those of us lucky enough to have known him. To work with him in pursuit of peace, justice and human rights is to have been blessed.

Let me only add that one of the greatest achievements of my life is to have been embraced by him as his friend.

Unconstitutional execution set for Jan. 27 in Georgia

Posted by on January 21st, 2015

Warren Hill, who has a lifelong well-documented intellectual disability, is scheduled to be executed Jan. 27 in Georgia.

“Every single expert who has examined him, including those retained by the state, agrees that Mr. Hill has intellectual disability,” said Hill's attorney Brian Kammer. “The only reason he is in grave danger of an unconstitutional execution is that the Georgia standard is unscientific and, as Mr. Hill’s case painfully shows, impossible to satisfy.”

Because of the Georgia standard, Hill has been denied the constitutional protection from execution under Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which prohibits the execution of persons with intellectual disability.

A clemency hearing is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 26. Attorneys are gathering letters of support. Please show your support and sign a letter asking for clemency for Warren Hill.

Learn more here:

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UN Calls Death Penalty “Torture”

Posted by on January 8th, 2015

The United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned the United States death penalty in a newly-released report, saying it is troubled by recent executions and prolonged delays that amount to torture. In a series of recent votes, the UN has shown that the majority of the world’s states condemn any use of the death penalty. However, the new report goes further, in detailing how the practice of capital punishment in the US violates this nation’s obligations under international law—specifically the UN Convention against Torture, to which the US is a signatory.

“The UN has confirmed what many observers said after the series of botched executions last year: America’s use of the death penalty is a form of torture that violates international law,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. “As the UN recommends, the US should stop all executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty, in order to honor the international treaties it has signed.”

On a more positive note, the report welcomed the abolition of the death penalty in six US states since the committee last reported on the US in 2006.

Read the text of the report on capital punishment in the United States:

Death Penalty
25. While welcoming that six states have abolished capital punishment during the period under review, the Committee expresses its concern at the State party’s admission that it is not currently considering abolishing the death penalty at the federal level. It also expresses its concern at reported cases of excruciating pain and prolonged suffering that procedural irregularities have caused to condemned prisoners in the course of their execution. The Committee is specially troubled by the recent cases of botched executions in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Ohio. The Committee is equally concerned at the continued delays in recourse procedures which keep prisoners sentenced to death in a situation of anguish and incertitude for many years. The Committee notes that in certain cases such situation amounts to torture in so far as it corresponds to one of the forms of torture (i.e. the threat of imminent death) contained in the interpretative understanding made by the State party at the time of ratification of the Convention (arts. 1, 2 and 16).

The State party should review its execution methods in order to prevent pain and prolonged suffering. The Committee recalls that according to the Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty (approved by Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 of 25 May 1984), where capital punishment occurs, it shall be carried out so as to inflict the minimum suffering. The State party should reduce the procedural delays that keep prisoners sentenced to capital punishment in the death row for prolonged periods. The State party is encouraged to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolish the death penalty, to commute the sentences of individuals currently on death row and to accede to the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

The UN Committee Against Torture is a body of 10 independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The United States signed the Convention in 1988 and ratified it in 1994.

How many people were killed in your name?

Posted by Mike Farrell & Matt Cherry on December 3rd, 2014

Killing in your name?

Dear Supporter,

So far this year 33 people have been killed in your name. They were all prisoners executed in the US.

Some were probably innocent. Many died slowly and painfully. All were killed in the name of the people. More than 3,000 are now on death row waiting for our government to kill them. If we allow them to be executed, they too will be killed in your name.

Unlike other top execution nations—China, Saudi Arabia and Iran—we’re not killing prisoners because we're a dictatorship or theocracy, but because we the people have chosen to do so. It's killing of the people, by the people, and for the people. But the disturbing fact that we the people are responsible also means that we the people can stop the killing. We can join the rest of the West in abolishing the death penalty.

The first step is for you to speak up and take action. A gift in your name will help us amplify your voice and that of everyone who opposes our government killing in our name.

For more than quarter of a century, Death Penalty Focus has helped countless Americans find their voice, tell their story and be heard. We have helped crime victims, law enforcement professionals and many others affected by the death penalty system to give voice to their concerns.

People are listening. The most recent Field Poll showed that support for the death penalty in California has fallen 12% in the past three years. That's as much as it fell in the previous twenty years.

We can do so much more if you add your support. We can organize more local groups, visit more campuses, speak with more community groups, and increase our visibility in the media. It's our democracy. We need to raise our voices and tell our elected representatives to stop the executions.

We hope you will choose to join us by supporting Death Penalty Focus, and that you will choose to do so as generously as you can within your means.

Together we can end the killing in our name.

Mike Farrell

Matt Cherry
Executive Director

PS: You can also go one step further by sharing this message on Facebook. By spreading the word, you'll let others know that you stand with DPF in saying that executions have no place in the 21st century.

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"The Penalty": A New Documentary in the Making

Posted by David Crawford on November 24th, 2014

There's a new documentary in the works, and it come from the same folks that brought us One For Ten, the documentary series that explored issues that lead to innocent people getting sentenced to death.

According to the filmmakers, "The Penalty is a 90-minute film that seeks to lift the lid on the human cost of the death penalty. From the award-winning team behind One For Ten the film pulls back the curtain on the people who are touched by capital punishment every day, but who are often far from death row. We follow the tentacles of the death penalty as they wrap their way around lawyers, innocent men, victims' families and the political landscape."

Here is the trailer for the film so far:

Needless to say, this is an important documentary that will raise awareness about the major topics in the debate over the lingering existence of capital punishment in the 21st century US.

For this reason we're endorsing this project and hoping that you'll consider making a donation if you think it's as important as we do. The filmmakers are currently half-way through their filming process, but they need your help to gather the final footage so that they can order assemble and distribute it. Since they've already received a lot of interest from major distributors, your support will help ensure that people all around the US (and indeed the world) know what's at stake as states continue to prop up their crumbling execution systems.

The Kickstarter link is here. As we said earlier, any support goes a long way. But also make sure to check out the online fundraiser because it offers exclusive perks to donors who invest in the project at this crucial stage.

We recently had the opportunity to help raise funds for The Penalty at an event right around the corner from our headquarters in San Francisco. We got to hear from Nancy Mullane, the intrepid journalist behind Life of the Law who was recently granted access to California's death row (a truly rare occurrence), and SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has led the charge in San Francisco seeking to prioritize policies prevent crime in the first place rather than mindlessly dumping tax money into an endless cycle of incarceration.

Check out some photos from the event:

Director Will Francome and Producer Lara Shacham preparing for the event.

SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi speaking.

Life of the Law's Nancy Mullane, deep in thought.

Someone lending his support to the film, with DPF's David Crawford speaking with a guest in the background.

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Help stop this "miserable spectacle"

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A Texas death row inmate named Scott Panetti is convinced that he is imprisoned for preaching the gospel and carrying out God's plan in defiance of a vast satanic conspiracy.

It is unconstitutional to execute prisoners who have no grasp on reality or the reasons for their convictions. Nevertheless, the sate is planning to strap him to a table and inject him with chemicals until an overdose occurs on December 3.

We're asking for your help to prevent this miserable spectacle. Panetti's sister, Victoria, has created a petition that will be delivered to Texas Gov. Rick Perry before he considers granting clemency. Please take a moment to sign the petition by clicking here, and then help spread the word.

This case has been infamous to legal and mental health professionals for decades. According the Texas Defender Service:

While representing himself at trial in 1995, Mr. Panetti sought over 200 subpoenas, including ones for John F. Kennedy, the Pope, and Jesus Christ. He wore a TV-Western cowboy costume and a purple bandana. Mr. Panetti’s statements in court, at both the guilt and sentencing phase, were bizarre and incomprehensible. He took the witnesses stand and testified about his own life in excessive and irrelevant detail. ...

Mr. Panetti has a fixed delusion that his execution is being orchestrated by Satan, working through the State of Texas, to put an end to his preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If his execution date is not withdrawn, he will go to the execution chamber convinced that he is being put to death for preaching the Gospels, not for the murder of his wife’s parents, and the retributive goal of capital punishment will not be served.

And the National Alliance on Mental Illness's Director for Policy and Legal Affairs, Ron Honberg, wrote that:

Ultimately, Texas should not be permitted to execute Scott Panetti without answering the central question the lower courts have sidestepped: How can a person with a severe mental illness who genuinely believes that Satan, conspiring with the state government, is seeking to execute him for preaching the Gospel nonetheless possess a rational understanding of the link between his crime and his punishment?

Panetti's trial was an abomination. His execution, if the U.S. Supreme Court does not stop it, would be a miserable spectacle.

Again, please sign Victoria Panetti's petition and share with others if you haven't done so already. After that, check out the infographic below if you want to learn more about the case.

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Discussing a World without Executions with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter

Posted by David Crawford on October 27th, 2014

DPF President Mike Farrell has been working on a new project in Georgia for the last few weeks. While there, he decided to stop by the Carter Center and catch up with the former president of the United States.

As you might know, Jimmy Carter signed the law authorizing Georgia's "modern" death penalty system in 1973 while serving as the state's governor. This was the same statute that went before the Supreme Court in 1976 in the case Gregg v. Georgia, wherein the national moratorium on executions was lifted.

The moratorium was lifted because some of the justices thought that the Georgia law went far enough in addressing the arbitrariness and inconsistency that had made the previous system unconstitutional. However, as Carter told the Guardian, “The only consistency today is that the people who are executed are almost always poor, from a racial minority or mentally deficient. In America today, if you have a good attorney you can avoid the death penalty; if you are white you can avoid it; if your victim was a racial minority you can avoid it. But if you are very poor or mentally deficient, or the victim is white, that’s the way you get sentenced to death.”

Reflecting on this point and his role in the creation of the current death penalty system, Carter told the audience at last year's national death penalty symposium that “If I had to do that over again I would certainly be much more forceful in taking actions what would have prohibited the death penalty. In complete honesty, when I was governor I was not nearly as concerned about the unfairness of the application of the death penalty as I am now. I know much more now. I was looking at it from a much more parochial point of view – I didn’t see the injustice of it as I do now.”

It's been about a year since the Carter Center and the American Bar Association held the symposium, but the videos and topics covered are still crucial to the debate about the future of executions in the US. Here is a video that includes Carter's opening remarks (which start around 20 minutes in). There are plenty more videos from the event on the ABA's website too.

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Exonerees Gather to Celebrate Innocence Day

Posted by David Crawford on October 14th, 2014

Death Penalty Focus and Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent hosted their first annual Innocence Day as a part of the first ever Death Penalty Focus Week.

The event featured several panelists who were incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Not only did the speakers recount their ordeals, they explained what went wrong in each of their cases, be it mistaken eyewitness identification, false testimony, or full-fledged misconduct from police and prosecutors.

From left to right, the panelists included:

  • Nick Yarris, who spent 21 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit because DNA testing was not available at the time of his trial. Nick's story is both heart-wrenching and inspirational. You can read all about it in his book, 7 Days to Live.
  • Gloria Killian, who spent 16 years in prison for a crime she didn't commit, because the perpetrators tried to frame her in order to cover up the involvement of a co-conspirator and in order to seek reduced sentences from the prosecutors. All the while, the prosecutors hid these details from Gloria's attorney, including a letter by the gunman that stated "I lied my ass off for you people." Since her exoneration, Gloria has gone on to become the executive director of the Action Committee for Women in Prison.
  • Obie Anthony, who spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit because a witness lied to the jury at his trial. Obie was exonerated due to the tireless efforts of the Loyola Project for the Innocent and he frequently helps DPF as a Justice Advocate.
  • Kash Register, who spent an astounding 34 years in prison for a murder he had nothing to do with, because a witness said he somewhat resembled the real perpetrator and because prosecutors hid evidence that cast doubt on his involvement. Kash was also exonerated, less than one year ago, due to the efforts of the Loyola Project for the Innocent.
  • Ronnie Sandoval, the mother of Arthur Carmona, who spent 3 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit because police investigators dressed him in the outfit of another suspect in order to secure a positive witness identification, and because his lawyer never thought to question this at his trial. Arthur was tragically killed just a few years after his exoneration. Ronnie honors her son's memory by continuing to tell his story.

The event gathered considerable attention, both from the public and the press. The Robinson Courtroom, a training ground for Loyola law students, drew such a crowd that people stood in the aisles and watched from the doorways once all of the seats were taken. Reporters NBC4-Los Angeles also showed up to cover the event. Their coverage features Nick, Nick Obie, and Kash:

Exonerated Celebrate "Innocence Day"

Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent celebrated "Innocence Day" in Los Angeles by bringing together a group of exonerated men and women to share their stories.

Obie Anthony, convicted in 1994 for a murder at a brothel in South LA, was given a sentence of life without parole.

Kash Register spent 34 years and seven months in prison for a murder he didn't commit. He was just released last November.

Nick Yarris spent 23 years in solitary confinement for rape and murder - neither of which he committed.

Three examples, the Project says, shows a broken judicial system in drastic need of help.

Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson says students and staff work together on multiple cases that come to their attention where evidence or testimony comes into question.

If, after a thorough investigation of the case a true claim of innocence is provable, students draft a habeas petition so the case can be litigated.

"It's unbelievable that this type of injustice can occur," says Levenson. "We have prosecutors who are not turning over evidence. We rely on so-called eyewitness IDs that are no good. We have jailhouse snitches. But mainly what we have are people that are too eager to convict."

And for some, prosecutors who may have lied about evidence or kept key information on cases away from juries, continue to prosecute.

That's the case for Obie Anthony, who says the prosecutor who made a deal with a pimp to convict him still works for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

And yet Anthony holds very little anger.

"Anger keeps you in prison," says Anthony. "They've already taken 17 years of my life."

Eyewitness testimony has long been argued as unreliable. It's what put Anthony in prison.

"When was the last time somebody said to you that you look like someone else, or that you remind them of this person. It was just that easy that I found myself in the penitentiary with life without the possibility of parole," Anthony says.

Kash Register says he couldn't help but break down in tears during the initial trial that convicted him.

"I don't care who you are. They put you in that seat right there. They point you out. Everybody gonna look the same," he says.

Nick Yarris says he was stopped by Philadelphia police in the early 1980s while he was on a methamphetamine high.

When he resisted arrest, he says the officer fired a shot into the ground, threw him in the back of his cruiser and then made a "shots fired" call asking for back-up.

Yarris was later convicted for the rape and murder of a woman four days before the scuffle with police.

"Yes, I did ask to be executed for a crime I didn't commit," Yarris says, looking back to 2003 after having been in solitary confinement for 23 years.

A federal judge considered his plea and used DNA tests to later free him.

Those who shared their stories with the Project for the Innocents say they feel a mission to their lives now, to continue to share their stories.

And they thanked the effort of the students and staff at Loyola for helping to free them.

"Your efforts, for bringing me home, will not go in vain," says Anthony. "I will make you proud."

Originally published by NBC4 Los Angeles.

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Mental Health the Focus of 12th World Day Against the Death Penalty

Posted by David Crawford on October 10th, 2014

Friday, October 10, marks the 12th Annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. This year's theme is "Care, Don't Kill: Mental Disorder Is Never a Crime."

It may come as a shock, but California has the single largest death row in the Western Hemisphere. With 750 condemned prisoners and a new, court-ordered psychiatric hospital constructed just this year, it's important to recognize the the significance of this World Day for California, and the state's role in the lingering existence of the death penalty in the US and around the world.

To commemorate this year's event, and our first ever Death Penalty Focus Week, we've assembled a short list of relevant articles about the issue of mental health in terms of our movement to finally put an end to executions.

Our first article comes from two members of a group we work closely with, California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Nick and Amanda Wilcox lost their daughter at the hands of a person who slipped through the cracks in the state's mental health system. They now advocate for improved services instead of the death penalty.

The second piece is an infographic from earlier this year detailing how mental disorders are the norm, not the exception, when it comes to who gets executed in the US.

Next, there is an article by esteemed law professor Charles Ogletree about the meaning of this year's Supreme Court case which reiterated the fact that executing people with intellectual disabilities runs in fundamental opposition to the value we place on human dignity.

After that, there is an article by LA Times correspondent Paige St. John on the mixed messages sent by the construction of a new, court-ordered psychiatric ward for California's death row as condemned prisoners face decades of solitary confinement, which compounds or creates new mental illnesses.

Finally we pass along the facts about mental health and the death penalty worldwide, according to our allies at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Parents of Murdered Daughter Speak Out Against the Death Penalty

Amanda and Nick Wilcox

As a family, we have always been opposed to the Death Penalty. That belief, however, was theoretical; we never dreamed that our family would be touched by violent crime.

On January 10, 2001, our only daughter, Laura, was murdered while home on winter break from college. Laura was filling in as a receptionist at the Nevada County Behavioral Health clinic when a mentally ill client opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun and shot Laura four times, killing her instantly. When the rampage at the clinic and at a nearby restaurant ended, three people lay dead, three were severely injured, a community was shaken, and the world was diminished by the loss of an incredible young woman.

Laura had extraordinary capabilities, kindness, and spirit. She was an outstanding student, graduating as high school valedictorian and was at the time of her death a college sophomore, and in the midst of her campaign for the student body presidency. Laura was extremely organized, disciplined and motivated. Couple these traits with her positive energy and she was a natural leader. At age nineteen, Laura was already living a life full of service; she wanted to make a positive difference in the world…she had unlimited possibilities and the brightest of prospects. Laura was preparing to dedicate herself to a life of social service, social justice, and world peace through the practice of respect, non-violence and social equality. Her life was witness to her beliefs, as she touched and inspired the lives of those around her.

As Quakers, our family, including Laura, had always been opposed to the death penalty. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, while still in disbelief and shock, we leaned on our long-held beliefs; we remain opposed to the death penalty. As we continued our journey as grieving parents and endured the criminal and civil proceedings, we experienced a wide range of emotions but never wavered in our opposition to the death penalty. In fact, our feelings against the death penalty have been strengthened.

In the days after Laura was killed, we were searching to find sense and meaning. It was incomprehensible that someone as good and innocent as our dear Laura could be killed by an act of violence. Comments such as “Fry the Bastard” or “I hope he gets what he deserves” were loudly expressed in our community, but did not comfort us. We were in need of a restored faith in the goodness of people. The support, care, and concern of friends and strangers warmed our hearts and rekindled our faith.

The death penalty is often justified in the name of the victim’s families. Advocates claim that it will bring justice and closure. However, true justice is something we can never achieve, as we can never have our daughter back. In our view, the lengthy process of trials, appeals and anticipated execution would only impede coming to terms with our horrible loss. If closure means healing, that healing must come from within, not from the fate of the murderer.

We believe the man who killed our daughter must be held fully accountable. He cannot be trusted to be free in society again without continuing supervision. However, further feelings of him would give him a hold on our life that we do not wish to grant. We have no control over what happened to our daughter but we can choose how we respond. We know what Laura would want. We lost our daughter and life as we knew it, we do not intend to lose our values too.

We understand that victims who oppose the death penalty are frequently marginalized and ignored by the court, thereby perpetuating the harm. In our case, we were fortunate to meet with the District Attorney regarding our feelings and were assured that the death penalty would not be sought even though the special circumstances of multiple and premeditated murder might have applied. Our daughter’s killer was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity, and committed to a state mental hospital. We agree completely with this outcome.

From a purely analytical perspective, the death penalty might be justifiable if it deterred crime and saved lives, or if it resulted in a reduction in State costs. Studies have shown that it does neither of these things. The death penalty, therefore, can only be viewed as an institutional expression of revenge and retribution. Rather than focusing on the offender, it must be asked what the death penalty says about us as a society. Our nation cannot afford the death penalty; the cost, both morally and financially, is too high. We say, not in our name.

Amanda and Nick Wilcox
Penn Valley

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Infographic: #Last100Executed: Who Were They?

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The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity

by Charles Ogletree

I have wondered countless times over the past 30 years whether I would live to see the end of the death penalty in the United States. I now know that day will come, and I believe that the current Supreme Court will be its architect.

In its ruling in Hall v. Florida in May, the court — with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the helm — reminded us that the core value animating the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments clause is the preservation of human dignity against the affront of unnecessarily harsh punishment. Hall, which prohibited a rigid test in use in Florida for gauging whether a defendant is intellectually disabled, was the most recent in a series of opinions in which the court has juxtaposed retribution — the idea of vengeance for a wrongdoing, which serves as the chief justification for the death penalty — with a recognition of our hopelessly complex and fallible human nature.

What was important about Hall is the way Kennedy described the logic behind exempting intellectually disabled individuals from execution: “to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being” because the “diminished capacity of the intellectually disabled lessens moral culpability and hence the retributive value of the punishment.” Though the court previously barred imposition of the death penalty upon intellectually disabled people, as well as juvenile offenders, Hall marked the first time that it went so far as to claim that imposing the death penalty upon offenders with these kinds of functional impairments serves “no legitimate penological purpose.”

This is why I see an end coming to the death penalty in this country. The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows. A new study by Robert J. Smith, Sophie Cull and Zoë Robinson, published in Hastings Law Journal, of the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits.

One-third of the offenders had intellectual disabilities, borderline intellectual function or traumatic brain injuries, a similarly debilitating impairment. For example, the Texas Department of Corrections determined that Elroy Chester had an IQ of 69. He attended special education classes throughout school and never functioned at a higher level than third grade. The state had previously enrolled Chester into its Mentally Retarded Offenders Program. Despite these findings, Texas executed him on June 12, 2013.

More than half of the 100 had a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or psychosis. For example, for more than 40 years, Florida’s own psychiatrists found that John Ferguson suffered from severe mental illness. Ferguson had a fixed delusion that he was the “Prince of God” who could not be killed and would rise up after his execution and fight alongside Jesus to save the United States from a communist plot. When Ferguson was executed on Aug. 5, 2013, his last words were: “I just want everyone to know that I am the Prince of God and I will rise again.” A Florida court had called Mr. Ferguson’s delusions “normal Christian beliefs.”

Many other executed offenders endured unspeakable abuse as children. Consider Daniel Cook, whose mother drank alcohol and abused drugs while she was pregnant with him. His mother and grandparents molested him as a young child, and his father physically abused him by, for example, lighting a cigarette and using it to burn Daniel’s genitals. Eventually the state placed Daniel in foster care, but the abuse didn’t stop. A foster parent chained him nude to a bed and raped him while other adults watched from the next room through a one-way mirror. The prosecutor responsible for Cook’s death sentence stood behind him during the clemency process, telling authorities that he would have taken the death penalty off of the table had he known of his torturous childhood. Arizona refused to commute Cook’s sentence, however, and he died by lethal injection on Aug. 8, 2012.

As the execution of Elroy Chester, John Ferguson, Daniel Cook and many more like them illustrates, barring the death penalty for intellectually disabled and juvenile offenders did not solve the death penalty’s dignity problem. Rather, those cases gave us cause to look more closely at the people whom we execute. And when you look closely, what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is a professor at Harvard Law School.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post.

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San Quentin plans psychiatric hospital for death row inmates

By Paige St. John

Under court pressure to improve psychiatric care for deeply disturbed death row inmates, state officials are moving quickly to open a 40-bed hospital at San Quentin prison to house them.

The court-appointed monitor of mental health care in California's prison system reported to judges Tuesday that about three dozen men on death row are so mentally ill that they require inpatient care, with 24-hour nursing.

For now, they are being treated in their cells, but the state plans to have a hospital setting ready for them by November, according to documents filed Tuesday in federal court.

The plan calls for taking over and retrofitting most of a new medical unit recently built at the prison. A spokeswoman for the court's prison medical office said San Quentin officials plan to use medical facilities at other prisons if a shortage of beds arises as a result.

The urgency of psychiatric treatment for the mentally ill prisoners demands swift action, the court's monitor, Matthew Lopes, said in court papers. He said an agreement to provide the psychiatric wing at San Quentin was made possible by collaborative effort among the state, courts and prisoners' lawyers.

In December, after weeks of courtroom testimony on the treatment of about 10 unidentified death row prisoners, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ordered the state to provide condemned inmates access to inpatient psychiatric care. The court files show negotiations and planning began almost immediately.

Karlton also ordered mental health screenings of all 720 condemned men at San Quentin. Those evaluations concluded in late May with the identification of 37 condemned men for admission to the psychiatric unit. Lopes' report notes that San Quentin is bound to need room for additional patients.

Twenty female prisoners who are sentenced to die and housed elsewhere are not covered by Karlton's order.

Some analysts see irony in providing for the long-term mental health of those sentenced to die.

"This is the only place on Earth where you'd be talking about building a psychiatric hospital for condemned prisoners," said Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring, who has written about the U.S. capital punishment system. "It is a measure of American greatness and American silliness at the same time."

Federal courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people who are not aware of what is happening to them. "We are curing them to make them executable," Zimring said.

But San Francisco prisoners' rights lawyer Michael Bien, who argued the San Quentin case in court last fall, regards adequate psychiatric care as a fundamental right.

"The reality is these guys are going to live in this place for a long time, and you need to see they get the care they need," Bien said.

California, with the nation's largest death row, has not killed a prisoner since 2006. Later that year, state executions were stayed when condemned inmate Michael Morales challenged the lethal injection procedures.

The state attempted to adopt new protocols involving different drugs in 2010, but they remain under legal challenge.

In the interim, 44 inmates have died of age, disease, drug overdose or suicide, with the latter raising concerns about psychiatric care on death row. One of those who committed suicide was Justin Helzer, who helped his brother kill five people and dump their dismembered bodies into a Sacramento river in 2000.

According to last year's testimony, Helzer was found by San Quentin doctors to be delusional and schizophrenic and often refused medication. In 2010, he blinded himself by jabbing pens through the sockets of his eyes. In 2013, he made a noose out of his bed sheet and hanged himself in his cell.

Corrections officials had testified that psychiatric care for death row inmates was limited. Those sent to a psychiatric hospital within another state prison were quarantined from the rest of the population, limiting therapy.

San Quentin had set up unlicensed beds, providing the equivalent of outpatient treatment within a corner of its medical building. Karlton found both provisions inadequate.

Unlike other psychiatric hospitals within men's prisons, the one at San Quentin will be run by the corrections department and not the Department of State Hospitals.

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration has not sought legislative approval for the San Quentin project. Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said the state plans to use savings in prison mental health services elsewhere in the state to run the unit.

This article was originally published in the LA Times.

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On 10 October 2014, the 12th World Day Against the Death Penalty is drawing attention to people with mental health problems who are at risk of a death sentence or execution. While opposing the death penalty absolutely, abolitionists are also committed to see existing international human rights standards implemented. Among these is the requirement that persons with mental illness or intellectual disabilities should not face the death penalty.

As the World Day approaches, see what is happening in your country, contact us to add your event to the global list and share the Facebook invitation!
Don't forget to take part in the social media campaign by sharing a photo of yourself making a stand against capital punishment, and see how it can be used to liven up debates at real-life events.

Prisons are becoming the mental institutions of the 21st century.

This reflects, at least in part, the failure of societies to provide adequate care and support to people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. It is important to stress that people with mental disorders do not, in general, pose a higher risk of violence than the general population although there is considerable evidence that they are at greater than average risk of becoming victims of violence. There are, however, numerous cases of people who were in need of mental health care that they did not receive who then went on to commit acts of violence.

What needs to be done

A number of actions by governments are needed to address the risk that persons with mental and intellectual disabilities will be sent to death row and possibly executed.

- Immediate implementation of existing standards barring the imposition of death sentences or executions on those with intellectual disabilities and those who are seriously mentally ill. The practice of executing such persons should cease immediately. Factsheet for Judges

- Renewed efforts to (i) ensure that all states have laws that embed international protections in their domestic legislation; (ii) extend protection to those with serious mental illness not covered by existing proscriptions against executing persons affected by “insanity”. Factsheet for Parliamentarians

- Adoption by national medical and legal professional bodies of codes of conduct ensuring that professionals do not act unethically or unprofessionally in capital cases. Factsheet for Medical Professions , Factsheet for Prison Staff

- Ensure that adequate mental health care is available for defendants in capital cases in which mental or intellectual disabilities are claimed as a factor. Factsheet for Lawyers

- Work towards the reduction of stigma against persons with mental or intellectual disabilities, particularly where media reports promote inaccurate public beliefs about risks posed by such persons. Factsheet for Journalists

To know more about the death penalty...

... all over the world: read the Facts & figures (download on right)
... and mental health: read the leaflet and the detailed factsheet (download on right)

Take action to stop crime, not lives:

1.    Organize a public debate and a movie screening with exonerees, murder victim’s families, experts, to raise awareness on the reality of the death penalty
2.    Organize an art exhibition (photo, drawings, posters) or a theatre performance from Dead Man Walking to Victor Hugo
3.    Organize a demonstration, a sit-in, a ‘die-in,’ a flash mob
4.    Join the events prepared for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide
5.    Support urgent appeals and take part in social media action in the lead up to 10 October
6.    Write to a prisoner on death row
7.    Donate to the World Coalition against the Death Penalty or another group working to end the death penalty.
8.    Join an abolitionist organization
9.    Mobilize the media to raise awareness on the issue of the death penalty
10.    Participate in “Cities Against the Death Penalty/Cities for Life” on November 30, 2014

Call for initiatives

> On 10 October 2014, take action against the death penalty!
Join hundreds of initiatives organized worldwide

> Wherever you are
In Africa, America, Asia, Oceania or Europe

> Whoever you are
NGOS, teachers, lawyers, local representatives, parliamentarians, artists, reporters, religious leaders, citizens

> Whatever your plans are
Debates, concerts, press conferences, demonstrations, petitions, educational and cultural activities...

Get in touch with the World Coalition to tell us about events scheduled on October 10.

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Support for California's Death Penalty in Rapid Decline

Posted by Gil Garcetti on September 12th, 2014

Support for the death penalty in California is at the lowest point in half a century. And not only that – a new Field poll shows that this level of support is falling rapidly.

In 2011, support for the death penalty was at 68%. Yet in just 3 years it has tumbled by 13% to a just a small majority. What’s even more striking is that support has fallen as much in the last 3 years as it has in the last 30. And when you consider that people generally favor alternatives to executions—such as life in prison without the possibility of parole, where inmates have to work and pay restitution to victims’ families—even those who might support the death penalty in principle are turning away from it in practice.

The tide is turning and today’s news offers more proof that Californians are quickly moving in the right direction on this issue. In fact, I am one of those very Californians.

As the former District Attorney of Los Angeles County, a county that sends more people to death row than the entire state of Texas, I know that the death penalty is deeply emotional, highly divisive, and very political. However, both sides of the death penalty debate can agree on one thing: California’s death penalty system is broken beyond repair.

In my 32 years with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, including eight years as the county’s elected District Attorney, I prosecuted the most egregious murder cases to the fullest. I sent many people to death row, believing that I had served the people of Los Angeles—that I had sought justice.

Fast forward to present day—nearly 15 years later—I view the death penalty in a different light. I know that the death penalty is a costly charade that doesn’t make us any safer or deter crime. What’s more, it will always carry with it one fatal risk: executing an innocent person.

The writing is on the wall: the death penalty is quickly losing support among Californians and it is high time we replace it. We can’t go on with a system that is riddled with insurmountable practical and legal problems and fails to deliver on the promise of swift justice.

The only workable solution is to replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. That’s justice that works for everyone.

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Is the Death Penalty Cruel and Unusual?

Posted by David Crawford on September 9th, 2014

Legal Talk Network produces a thoughtful and entertaining show called Lawyer 2 Lawyer, which covers important legal topics in interviews with experts.

On August 27, the producers invited DPF's President, Mike Farrell, along with Ron Keine (a death row exoneree) and Judge Alex Kozinski to discuss recent, troubling developments in the administration of the death penalty.

You can listen using SoundCloud by clicking below. You can also download the episode by searching for Lawyer 2 Lawyer in iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

Mike and Ron provided many strong arguments for making executions a thing of the past. One of the best moments was when Mike responded to Judge Kozinski's plea not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" by ending the death penalty:

Mike Farrell:

The compromise that we have made, in order to satisfy the Judge Kozinskis of this world that say we must execute certain people because they don’t deserve to live, is that we have a system that entraps the Ron Keines of this world and kills the Cameron Todd Willinghams of this world. If you want to have that compromise, let’s take the half dozen people that Judge Kozinski says don’t deserve to live, and put them in a very specialized institution where then you can determine whether or not it’s possible that those people can be treated and reformed.  If not, you can keep them there for the rest of their natural life, a punishment that is as egregious as one can imagine and that does not require that we stoop to the level of the murderer and take a life.

#UK50: 50 Years Without Executions in the UK

Posted by David Crawford on August 14th, 2014

August 13 marked 50 years--half a century--since the UK stopped executing prisoners. DPF commemorated this anniversary by launching a project called "50 Years Without Death," creating a new educational website, collecting your perspectives, creating graphics to help you spread the word and change the conversation, and placing two pieces in the Huffington Post, and by featuring DPF's President, Mike Farrell, DPF's Executive Director, Matt Cherry, on HuffPost Live. Check out all of these resources, and submit a perspective if you want too (it not too late!)

50 Years Without Death Website

50 years without the death penalty uk usa

You can check out DPF's new educational website, "50 Years Without Death," by visiting There you will find sections on

  • The end of executions in the UK and information about notorious cases wherein innocent people were executed and the public was outraged.

  • A new infographic about the decline and fall of capital punishment in the entire Western world--except the United States.

  • Perspectives from famous Britons on the meaning of half a century without executions.

  • And ways to get involved, spread the word, and change the conversation.


One of the most interesting features of is the section featuring people's perspectives about the fact that it's 50 years since the UK stopped executing prisoners. You can even submit your own perspective.

Here are some of our favorites:

nick yarris - 50 years without the death penalty

Nick Yarris

Nick Yarris was the first death row inmate to be proven innocent by DNA in Pennsylvania. He has spoken about the dangers of capital punishment in the UK and the USA.

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello is an English musician who supports humanitarian causes. His song “Let Him Dangle” is about the notorious Derek Bentley case.

PG by Michele Turriani cropped

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel is a world-famous English musician and human rights activist. He is adamantly opposed to the death penalty in the USA.

Richard_Branson cropped

Richard Branson

Richard Branson is an English entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group. Read why he thinks its time for the USA to get rid of the death penalty.


Jeremy Irons

Jeremy Irons is an award-winning stage and film actor, in addition to being an advocate for human rights with Amnesty international.

Ways to Get Involved

While there are plenty of ways to get involved with DPF and the movement to end capital punishment, for this event we created a meme so that you could share it on social media and help change the conversation about the death penalty. It's still active, so go ahead and share it if you haven't yet.

Share the 50 Years Without Death - Keep Calm and End the Death Penalty - Meme of Facebook

Mike and Matt in the Huffington Post

DPF's President, Mike Farrell, and its Executive Director, Matt Cherry, both published pieces reflecting on the significance of the anniversary in the Huffington Post.

Mike and Matt also spoke with Dr. Marc Lamont Hill about the importance of the occasion and the diverging paths between the USA and the rest of its closest allies.

You can watch the video right here:

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Infographic: The First Time We Ended the Death Penalty

Posted by David Crawford on June 27th, 2014

Polls Show Preference for Death Penalty Alternatives

Posted by David Crawford on June 6th, 2014

Even though support is at a 40-year low, polls still indicate that most Americans approve of capital punishment.

Or do they?

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll asked respondents to answer a series of questions about the death penalty. When asked whether they support it in general, 61% said yes. When asked about the way convicted murderers should be punished, only 42% recommended death, while 52% recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Interestingly, about a third of the people who said they supported the death penalty in principle preferred LWOP when given a choice.

More striking is that this preference existed among people in states with and without death penalty statutes. Respondents in states that authorize capital punishment preferred LWOP by 5%, while their counterparts in states that have abandoned the practice preferred LWOP by 30%.

This ABC New/Washington Post poll is only the latest to demonstrate this preference. In the last decade or so, polls around the country have shown that enthusiasm for the idea of capital punishment drops when people are given options for dealing with convicted murderers. Here is a partial list, courtesy of the Death Penalty Information Center.

  • Last month, Quinnipiac released polling figures that showed support for life sentences at 49% (40% for LWOP and 9% for life with a possibility of parole) and support for death at 43% in Ohio.
  • Earlier in the year, the Kinder Institute found that only 28% of Houston residents preferred the death penalty, while 39% chose LWOP and 29% opted for life with a possibility of parole. This is noteworthy because Houston is the largest city in Harris County (and Texas moreover), and Harris has sent more people to the death chamber than any other county since 1976. In other words, it’s surprising not to see more support for the death penalty in the capital punishment capitol.
  • A 2011 Field Poll in California showed 48% support for LWOP and 40% support for the death penalty.
  • RBI Strategies and Research found an even 45%-45% split in Colorado in 2008.
  • The Washington Post found 52% support for LWOP and 43% support for death in Maryland in 2008.
  • In Pennsylvania, Penn State’s Center for Survey Research reported 42.9% support for death, 35.5% for LWOP, and 9.6% for life with a chance at parole.
  • Blum and Weprin Associates found 53% support for LWOP in New York in 2006 and 38% support for the death penalty. Quinnipiac reported the same proportions in 2003.
  • The University of Wisconsin Badger Poll noted 50% support for LWOP and 45% support for the death penalty in Wisconsin in 2006.
  • New Jersey had 48% support for LWOP and 36% support for the death penalty in 2002, according to the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
  • A poll sponsored by Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty showed 50% support for LWOP in their state in 2001, and 45.2% support for the death penalty.
  • The Behavior Research Center found and even 46%-46% split in 2000 in Arizona.
  • And all the way back in 1997, the University of Kentucky at Louisville’s Survey Research Center found 42% support for LWOP and 35% support for the death penalty in the state.
It’s no surprise that people prefer alternatives to executions when they consider the range of punishments for serious violent crimes like murder. We already know that the death penalty doesn’t deter any more than other harsh sentencing options (such as LWOP), and that the latter costs a fraction of the price and carries no risk of executing an innocent person. 

The Death Penalty Failure They're Trying to Hide

Posted by Matt Cherry on May 13th, 2014

A letter from the desk of Matt Cherry, Executive Director:

 I have good news. Last week the supporters of a pro death penalty initiative finally admitted that they were not going to qualify for the California ballot in 2014. It was announced late on Friday afternoon, the traditional time for dumping bad news, without the big fanfare of their original announcement in February.

At that press conference, former Governors Deukmejian, Wilson and Davis declared that California’s death penalty system was broken. On that we could agree. However, they went on to claim that they had found a way to mend the broken system—something they had failed to do while they were in power for two decades. Even at the time of their announcement, their unwieldy proposal, contained in eighteen pages of convoluted legal changes, looked like Rube Goldberg tinkering with the machinery of death.

However, subsequent events—and their silence around them--have revealed to everyone just how misguided and indefensible their proposal was.

Horrifying and unworkable

The death penalty initiative sought extensive changes to California’s constitution. It proposed a sharp reduction in the time for death penalty appeals, requiring them to be taken by less qualified attorneys and courts, forcing more attorneys to take capital cases, and closing avenues for appeals.

In addition to removing safeguards around the appeals process, the initiative wanted to remove safeguards around executions, while also cloaking the execution process in secrecy.

The failure of this initiative to qualify for the November 2014 ballot is not surprising in the least. Its goal was horrifying to many Californians, and its proposed methods were unworkable.

Its goal was to move California to the top of the execution league. It would have required two executions a week, every week for the next decade, to meet its target of executing every capital convict within a decade of being sentenced to death. I never believed that Californians wanted to make San Quentin into the killing field of the Western world, though some told me that the promise to empty death row through the death chamber was one of its selling points.

But even if the people of California had voted these measures into law, their methods would have achieved the exact opposite of what the proponents claimed. For a start, it would have ramped up the costs of California’s multi-billion dollar death penalty system, as the new system became bogged down in a raft of legal challenges.

The proposed legal changes had bigger problems than a sudden increase in costs. Perhaps the biggest concern to the public was that by shortening the time for appeals against death sentences, the proposition would have greatly increased the possibility of executing innocent people.

Shocking news

The proposition needed over 800,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Yet since the initiative was launched in mid-February, we have heard nothing about signatures being collected. In fact, the only news about the death penalty in the past three months has been shocking news about how completely broken the death penalty is all across America.

In March, we heard about Glenn Ford in Louisiana. After spending 30 years waiting to be executed for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Ford became the 144th person to be exonerated from death row since the US resumed executions in 1977.

Then in May, the National Academy of Sciences published a “conservative estimate” that the number of innocent people sentenced to death is more than twice as high as the 144 who have been exonerated. That’s right: one of the most prestigious science publications in the world calculated that the US has sentenced to death more than 300 innocent people—and fewer than half have been set free.

So much for the proposal to allow less time for appeals before executing people.

May also revealed how dangerous it is to shroud the method of execution in secrecy. Despite trying to hide the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, Oklahoma showed just how cruel and inhumane lethal injection can be. The proposal for California to remove safeguards around lethal injection and shroud the process in secrecy now looks even more reckless and sinister.

The stories behind these death penalty headlines reveal the problems with the death penalty. They also explain why Californians don’t want to waste more money on trying to restart an unworkable mechanism that risks executing innocent people. The more people hear about the problems with the death penalty system, the more they turn against it.

Cost keeps growing

Yet we continue to spend millions of dollars a week on this broken system.

Back in 2011, the cost of California’s death penalty system was calculated at $4 billion. That’s how much more has been spent on California’s death penalty system, since it was reinstituted in 1978, than would have been spent if we had kept life without parole as the ultimate punishment.

Those costs keep growing. The authors of that authoritative report calculated that it cost an additional $184 million every year to maintain the death penalty system, so the figure is around $4.5 billion now. By 2016 it will be fast approaching $5 billion.

Speaking of 2016, the pro-death penalty team is now saying that 2016 is their new target for a ballot initiative.  This battle may be won, but the war goes on.

Death Penalty Focus will continue to publicize the problems with the death penalty. And we will continue to work for a world without death chambers.

As always thank you for everything you are doing to end the death penalty,

Matt Cherry
Executive Director

Ps. Our work is made possible by your generosity. You can make a tax deductible donation at any time by going to

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How to Stop a Heart

Posted by Mary DeMocker on May 8th, 2014

Arizona wants to kill my brother. The county attorney, sheriff, police officers, and prosecutors hope to strap Steve to a gurney and, in front of spectators, fill his veins with poison that stops his heart. We don’t know whether he might first suffer agonizing pain.

Steve’s main occupation as he paces in jail (we can’t raise the $2.5 million bail) is terror management. My brother, professor-turned-financier, is a planner and worrier. He worries about our parents—Dad the radiologist, Mom the retired minister, both 82—and how anxiety strains their aging hearts. He frets over his daughters, already grieving their mom.

All of this, taken alone, is disturbing—why taunt a human for years with his own execution? But on top of that, Steve didn’t murder anyone.

Prosecutors, I’ve learned, overcharge murder in hopes defendants “plead out” at a come-to-Jesus chat; you’re busted, here’s our evidence, ‘fess up and we’ll drop the death penalty.  When Steve refused, sure innocence would save him, he made the ultimate gamble. At first I believed things would get sorted out. Authorities just goofed. But Steve’s defense—that investigators let the murderer escape when they dropped other leads to focus on the ex-husband—enraged law enforcement. Nothing prepared me for their bloodlust.

I don’t understand it, since the usual evidence placing a suspect at the crime—DNA, fingerprints, blood, weapon, confession, witness—doesn’t exist. Other men’s DNA was under Carol’s fingernails. Instead of being troubled, the prosecution seems oddly exhilarated; somehow, exculpating evidence proves Steve is a criminal mastermind.

The public generally swallows this. Steve’s supporters vanished after media were fed key fabrications. After online news articles, readers comment cruelly and anonymously— a virtual lynch mob circling 24/7.

Don’t respond, lawyers warn, so I don’t, despite the overwhelming urge to howl my rage. Every night after tucking kids into bed, I trawl the internet for signs that truth will leak out and sanity will prevail. When I read comments like, “String ’im high!” I wonder what kind of person would heap terror onto our grief over losing Carol.

Cheerleaders for capital punishment claim victims’ families find peace after executions. But I don’t want whoever killed Carol, a sister to me for 27 years, to be executed. I wouldn’t wish on anyone what she suffered—looking helplessly into the face of her killer.

Lawyers won’t let us say any of that publicly. By the time we’re free to speak, we’ll probably be too tired and traumatized. This is capital punishment’s brutal irony; defendants’ families are terrified into a silence that helps perpetuate the broken, abusive system.

At countless pretrial hearings, Steve listens attentively, silently, as prosecutors—good-hearted people, surely, with spouses, grandchildren they spoil, personal sorrows and heroics—direct their best efforts into executing him. Every legal mechanism seems greased for conviction. When I lament to a prosecutor-turned-criminal-judge friend that I believed even prosecutors would care about truth, she smiles ruefully. “Prosecutors just want to win.”

I awaken nightly, sick with fear, and imagine the bailiff announcing, “Guilty.” Would I drop? Curse the jury? Friends say, “There are always appeals,” confident the system eventually spits out the innocent. They don’t understand that if Steve were sentenced to die, the best he could hope for would be transfer to regular prison or, far less likely, freedom, only after years of exhausting legal battle—and death row’s solitary confinement.

He can bear jail, he says, because of our support and a two-inch window through which he watches sunrise. It’s his time of quiet solace, the pouring of light, the imagined sounds of the desert’s arousal. When it rains, he strains for any scent of sage released by water touching parched leaves.

My mother, meanwhile, has a recurring vision:

Steve walks down the corridor, officers on either side, toward a room with a gurney, restraints, tubing, and needles. (A former nurse, Mom knows medical paraphernalia. How it sounds, how it smells.)

 I imagine the clock:  Eleven fifty-three . . . fifty-four. . .

She works at being able to go down the hall with him, mentally, like an angel sharing his most desperate hour. 

Eleven fifty-five. Five minutes until my son is killed.

If this scene unfolds in, say, 15 years, it’s unlikely she’ll still be alive. If she is, will it stop her 98-year-old heart?

Eleven fifty-six . . . seven . . . No.  I can't do this. 

She still hasn’t made it to midnight. Perhaps some kind of divine mercy prevents her. Or hard-wiring; a mother isn’t meant to envision her child’s traumatic death.

Or maybe, deep down, she knows that if Steve lands in that shooting gallery, she won’t be there watching. I will. And if it comes to that, I can only pray that both of their hearts give out before the onslaught of unbearable pain.

Mary DeMocker wrote this essay in 2010 before the death penalty was dropped in her brother’s case. In Oct. 2013, Steve was convicted on circumstantial evidence. He currently pursues appeal from the solitary confinement block of a for-profit maximum-security prison. Mary teaches harp and lives with her family in Oregon. For more of her writing and music, visit

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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.

Thank you.

Michael G. Millman,
March 15, 2014

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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 had two horrific reminders last week why California's death penalty system - the largest and most expensive in the country - is broken beyond repair.

First, we heard new evidence that hundreds of innocent people have been sentenced to
death in the United States. Then we saw political interference with the judicial system produce a gruesomely botched execution that set a new low for "cruel and unusual punishment."
Continue reading...   
    -Matt Cherry, Executive Director, 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.

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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

Community Sponsors:
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
Alan Sieroty
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange
Individual Patrons:
Garland and Farrokh Allen
Mary Broderick
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.

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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 Atlantic

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 immediate vicinity.

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 society.

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.

 He would 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 thoughtful man.

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.

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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

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."

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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,


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"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!

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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.

Cameron Todd Willingham Documentary Excerpt from texastribune on Vimeo.

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"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.

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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.

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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.


Matthew Cherry
Executive Director
Death Penalty Focus

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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.

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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!

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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.

Read more here:
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California Death Row Inmate Granted International Hearing

Posted by Chelsea Bond on October 24th, 2013
Act Now button

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.

Respectfully Yours,

Mike Farrell
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.

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Texas Executes 500th 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?

Executions per year since 1995

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.

Decline of death sentences per year since 1995 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.

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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.!

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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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Death Penalty and California

Posted by on January 22nd, 2013

We know that California's death penalty is broken. This new infographic by the California Innocence Project breaks down why - cost, wrongful convictions, and racial injustice. While California didn't vote to end the death penalty this time, the conversation must continue and more people must learn about these staggering statistics.

Death Penalty Infographic - An Infographic from CA Innocence Project

Embedded from CA Innocence Project

Despite Proposition 34's narrow loss, support for the death penalty is declining

Posted by Jessica Lewis on November 19th, 2012

“The death penalty in California survived by a narrow vote on November 6, but around the country the signs are clear that capital punishment is slowly on the way out,” writes Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, in his article “The Slow Demise of the Death Penalty.”

“Although California's recent vote means the death penalty will remain, the 47% of voters who favored replacing it indicates many Californians have had a change of heart regarding capital punishment. By contrast, the initiative that reinstated the death penalty in 1978 garnered the support of 71% of voters.”

Read the full Huffington Post article here.

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URGENT: Get Out The Vote for Prop 34

Posted by on October 22nd, 2012

It's crunch time! We are now counting the days until November 6, when Californians will have a chance to vote YES on Proposition 34 to replace the state’s death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.

Death Penalty Focus has been a critical part of this effort, and now we're reaching out to ask our community for support.

The campaign is seeking volunteers to fill each of the following important roles:

Phone Banking: Help reach 100,000 voters by calling through a targeted list. Yes on 34 staff will train and prepare you to have these critical one-on-one conversations. You can join one of many phone bank locations or you can call from the comfort of your home.

Door-to-Door Canvassing: Join Democrats and other Prop 34 allies as they go door-to-door in their neighborhoods, passing out literature and discussing the important issues and candidates on this years ballot in order to ensure that our supporters go to the polls and vote!

Street Outreach: Meet up with fellow volunteers in your area at one of the many community festivals and events happening the Friday before the election. As a group, you will pass out flyers and answer questions about the initiative to passersby. The Monday and Tuesday before the election, Yes on 34 volunteers will be passing out flyers at busy transit locations.

Office Help: Help Yes on 34 prepare materials for Get Out The Vote by cutting flyers, packaging materials, and making volunteer recruitment phone calls.

Please sign up to volunteer via the Yes on 34 site here.

Thank you for your help - on November 6, we will make history!

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Families of murder victims speak out

Posted by Chelsea Bond on September 20th, 2012

California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CCV), a project of Death Penalty Focus and Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation, has been an outlet for families of murder victims to speak about their opposition to the death penalty.

It is often said that the death penalty is needed to give closure to the families who have lost their loved ones. But what if you find that the death penalty does not give you closure, relief, or justice? 

In a series of videos, our CCV members explain why they have chosen to support alternatives to the death penalty. Please take a moment and watch!

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We need to help the victims of crime

Posted by Mary Kay Raftery, guest blogger on June 6th, 2012

My oldest son, Paul Raftery, was murdered on December 8, 2006 in Helena, Montana by two young men looking for drug money. Paul had no money in his wallet.

Prior to Paul’s murder, I had been involved with California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty. Sometimes, people would tell me that I would feel differently about my views on the death penalty if my child was murdered. After I received the call that Paul had been killed, I stopped to think about my opinion. It hadn’t changed.

I don't understand the concept of closure. After all, putting someone to death, in my case those two murderers, will never bring my sorely missed son back. The two murderers received sentences of life with the possibility of parole after 55 years, essentially a life sentence. I felt justice had been served.

I’d had the chance to talk to Paul about my activities with the California People of Faith. That’s when he quietly told me he, too, opposed the death penalty. I was surprised, but very gratified that he shared my beliefs having served 12 years as a law enforcement officer.

In November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote for SAFE California, a ballot initiative that will replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. This measure will save Californians over $1 billion in the next five years and create a one-time fund of $100 million to help local police investigate and solve the 46% of unsolved murders across the state.

My hope is that no mother is forced to endure the loss of a child to violent crime. That is why I believe so strongly in using our resources to prevent crime and keep our streets safe. The death penalty costs Californians $184 million a year more than the alternative but equally harsh punishment, life in prison without the possibility of parole. That money would be better spent hiring more police officers to help protect our communities.

I also believe that we need to be providing for the victims of these horrible acts. SAFE California means that victims will not be dragged through decades of appeals. Inmates will be locked up behind bars forever, where they will work and pay money toward restitution and victim compensation. They will lose the special privileges that death row provides them, including their own cell. And the tremendous savings will help free up money to support victim services like counseling and medical treatment.

It has now been five years since the young men who murdered our son were sentenced and we received justice. To honor Paul, I am expressing my support for the SAFE California Campaign. I hope that others will see that it is time we start using limited resources to address the real issues behind violent crime, and to help the victims that are left behind. 

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Honor Dr. King by volunteering to end death sentencing in California

Posted by on January 10th, 2012

This Monday, I will honor Dr. King’s passionate commitment to justice by volunteering to gather the signatures that will help us end the death penalty in California.

This upcoming weekend, January 14-16, will be a “Weekend of Action” where you can join us in this effort. Volunteers will be joined by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the California NAACP, and civil rights leaders throughout the state as we come together in support of the SAFE California Campaign. The SAFE California Campaign has less than two months to gather the remainder of signatures required to qualify for the November 2012 ballot, and volunteers are needed to help reach our goal.

Will you join us in honoring Dr. King and help end death sentences in California?

The SAFE California campaign is sponsored by a broad coalition of justice organizations, including Death Penalty Focus, who are all joined in the commitment to replace the death penalty to protect the innocent, save our very limited state resources, and improve safety in our communities. SAFE is working hard to get the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify the “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act” ballot initiative in time for the November 2012 election.

I am proud to say that Death Penalty Focus is one of the organizations leading this effort. For over 20 years, we have worked to get to this point, and with your help, we can make history in California this November.

We also take the time this coming weekend to honor all victims of senseless violence. Coretta Scott King declared, “As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses.” As Coretta Scott King knew, in order to create a future with less crime, we must end this risky and costly punishment.

Now is the time to step forward and join together in this campaign to end the death penalty in California. As a member of Death Penalty Focus, I hope you will join the thousands of volunteers statewide who are ready to commemorate Dr. King’s leadership by joining this historic movement over MLK weekend.

    In Solidarity,
    Ana Zamora
    Program Director

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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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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!

Posted in Blog, Resources | 2 comments

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!

Posted in Blog, International | 2 comments

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, 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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Juries' Lack of Mental Health Knowledge Puts the Intellectually Disabled at Risk

Posted by Zac Stone on May 27th, 2011

The results of a study published last year in the Law & Psychology Review (pdf) on juror perceptions of intellectual disability should surprise no one, yet the study's implications in capital trials are grave. Mental health workers' views on intellectual disability - referred to in the study as mental retardation, a term that is losing popularity, but still medically accurate and ingrained in law - and those views of jurors differ greatly, with those in the mental health field allowing a broader definition of disability based on eight areas of functioning.

The study found that jurors, presumably a group of folks representative of the American populace (in this case they came from a suburban area in a southeastern state), vastly underestimate the functional abilities of people with intellectual disabilities, when asked to identify characteristics that might suggest mental retardation, as compared to the estimations of mental health professionals.

Though the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia prohibits the execution of a mentally retarded person, the court did not define mental retardation, implying that states' death penalty statutes should conform to the diagnostic criteria put forth by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the American Psychiatric Association. In practice, unfortunately, while experts in the mental health field testify and offer their opinions in court, it is not a trained professional who ultimately measures a defendant's mental abilities, but a group of strangers from the defendant's community, whom the study authors refer to as "fact-finders."

The study's authors expected jurors to somewhat accurately measure three areas of functioning - independent living, school performance, and the ability to read and write - as they relate to intellectual disability. These are three signs that most laymen identify as being indicative of intellectual disability, but as the study found, jurors don't have a great idea of how capable the intellectually disabled are of living on their own in society, they tend to rely too heavily on school performance and reading and writing ability, and they misunderstand the significance of other factors.

Jurors are also reluctant to attribute characteristics to mental retardation or intellectual disability unless they "suggest extremely severe impairment," fitting the paradigm that many Americans have built around intellectual disability in which they imagine a person wholly dependant on others to survive. For instance, jurors were willing to connect a person's history of living in state hospitals with mental retardation, but largely they did not believe that a person with an intellectual disability could live in an apartment alone with only occasional visits from a social worker, while mental health workers, with more experience around the intellectually disabled, were quick to make the connection. Jurors also saw drug use and sexual activity as indicators that a person was intellectually capable, while mental health workers allowed for more nuance in these areas, and pointed to a person's romantic involvement in relationships as a better indicator of intellectual ability.

One of the study's key findings was that jurors strongly expect the intellectually disabled to be unaware of or unable to understand the wrongfulness of their actions, and jurors were more willing to attribute criminal behavior to a defendant's disability in such cases than if the defendant expressed an understanding of the crime. Those in the mental health field know, however, that those with milder cases of intellectual disability, who tend to make up the majority of intellectually disabled capital defendants, often can understand some implications of their crime, while not fully respecting the gravity.

In death penalty trials, in which juries ultimately decide if a defendant is mentally capable of being punished by death, the repercussions of this study, assuming the results are reproducible and applicable to juries elsewhere, are not to be underestimated.

Jurors who believe the intellectually disabled must be relegated to group homes or state hospitals, or that they cannot be sexually active, consume drugs, or attend public school, will not be able to effectively enforce the law of the land, in this case the Supreme Court's Atkins decision prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled. While it is expected that experts in any given field will have a better understanding of that field, as mental health workers better understand intellectual disability, the average American's level of ignorance on this topic makes clear that attorneys in capital cases must better prepare jurors to make the type of decision they have been tasked with - one of life or death.

Danish Drug-Maker's Death Penalty Dilemma

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on May 17th, 2011

Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck Inc. is currently faced with a significant ethical, and financial, dilemma, as it is the only manufacturer of pentobarbital which sells the drug to the U.S. where it has recently been used as an execution drug. While the company officially opposes this use for the short-acting barbiturate, it maintains that it has little control over what happens to the product after it is in the hands of American wholesalers, who have demonstrated a willingness to ignore the company's wishes and sell the drug to a number of states' Departments of Corrections.

Lundbeck has attempted to take some action, calling on prisons in eleven states to not use the drug as such behavior would fly in the face of the company's mission to provide the world with life saving technologies. Sadly, these efforts have so far fallen on deaf ears, as none of these prisons have responded to Lunbeck's letters, and Virginia has recently decided to join Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas (amongst others) in using the drug in its execution procedure.

Lundbeck finds itself in this precarious position largely because of a recent shortage of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic that had, until recently, been an ingredient in 35 of the 36 death penalty states' lethal injection cocktails. Hospira Inc., the only manufacturer of thiopental, began to run out of the drug in the summer of 2010, and recently stopped producing it altogether after Italy (where Hospira's plant is located) threatened legal action if the medication continued to be used to put people to death. Italy, like Denmark and all other EU member-states, has abolished capital punishment, and has decided to be active in opposing the punishment world wide.

While it is unclear if Denmark will take similar measures to ensure Lundbeck gets out of the execution business, some of the company's major investors are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Major Danish investment fund Unipension unloaded 5.4 million Euros worth of shares last Friday, citing the company's unwillingness to "engage in a genuine dialogue" about how they planned to prevent pentobarbital from being used in executions. ATP, Denmark's largest pension investor, is considering following suit, as it also has serious questions about the strength of Lundbeck's commitment.

London based non-profit, Reprieve, has been actively pressuring Lundbeck to act, and so far has been very disappointed with the company's efforts, most recently pointing to the corporation's failure to file brief's opposing the drug's usage in an impending Alabama execution. As Reprieve investigator Maya Foa put it, "It is hard to see why Lundbeck would not take this straightforward opportunity which could help to save a life…There is still time for Lundbeck to change their mind and take this simple step. If they continue to refuse, their company 'code of ethics' will not be worth the paper it's printed on."

While it is understandable that Lundbeck is reluctant to give up on its corner on the U.S. pentobarbital market, it is imperative that the company live up to its obligation as a maker of medicine, and does everything in its reach to ensure that its products are used only to heal. Until it does so, we should applaud the efforts of investors to hold Lundbeck accountable, as it may be the case that the company will be unwilling to make changes until its moral commitments are in alignment with its financial best interest.

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Is the Death Penalty a Deterrent?

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

Does capital punishment work? This question has been the topic of a hot debate for years. At the core of this discussion are quantitative analysts from academia. Using complex econometric methods, these mathematicians publish studies analyzing murder and execution rates over time, and then estimate how many innocent lives are saved from the deterrent effect of each execution.

In 2007, for example, Michael Summers and Roy Adler published a story in the Wall Street Journal claiming that the deterrent effect of each execution eventually saves 74 innocent people from being murdered. The study noticed a negative correlation between murders and executions - when the number of executions increased, the number of murders decreased.

These findings heavily support the theory of deterrence. Yet a recent study has called the article's conclusion into question. Dr. Gebhard Kirchgaessne from the Swiss Institute for International Economics and Applied Economic Research is working on a research paper demonstrating how easy it can be for economists to manipulate murder and execution data in order to support any agenda: "One can find any result demanded; this simple model does not allow for robust results" (8).

To prove this point, Dr. Kirchgaessne derives somewhat comical results from the economists' equations. The results are so unreliable that the same model can be used to support both points of view. Further suggesting that manipulation of data runs rampant in deterrence economics is the fact that even when long-run data suggest a certain trend (ie that the death penalty is a deterrent), there are still sub-periods within that sample that contradict the claim.

The author suggests that this fact should bring heightened scrutiny to any paper trying to empirically prove or disprove a deterrent effect of the death penalty: "Everybody who wants to claim that this negative correlation represents a causal relation has to provide a convincing explanation for the existence of sub-periods showing the opposite (causal) relation" (7).

Dr. Kirchgaessne concludes that "a critical and cautious examination of these results leads to the conviction that we cannot draw any strong conclusions. While there is some evidence that a deterrent effect might exist, it is too fragile to be certain" (18). He adds that the various claims that each execution prevents X number of future homicides are so dubious - given the unreliability of the testing mechanism - that they should not be given any serious weight in policy discussions.

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Take A Stand Against the Death Penalty

Posted by Zac Stone on May 10th, 2011

The National Library of France has introduced an interactive exhibit that allows library-goers to literally stand in the way of an execution. The video speaks for itself, so without futher ado…

Abolition from Marcel on Vimeo.

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Rising use of Mitigation Defense Linked to Fewer Death Sentences in Texas

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on May 9th, 2011

Jeffrey Toobin recently published an article in the New Yorker about the increasing movement in Texas to emphasize mitigating factors during the sentencing phase of death penalty trials. Specifically, Toobin follows the work of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center, an organization specializing in researching biographical mitigating evidence for defense teams in capital cases. When the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s, the Supreme Court stipulated that mandatory death sentences were unconstitutional, and insisted that a bifurcated trial take place, where first the guilt or innocence of the defendant is ascertained, and then the sentence is determined.

The jury has essentially unlimited discretion to weigh virtually any mitigating factors during the sentencing phase – past criminal history, mental illness, low IQ, combat experience, abusive upbringing, poverty, etc. Thus, a strong mitigation defense can literally make a life or death difference for the defendant. In his article, Toobin notes that the number of new death sentences in Texas has been down considerably after GRACE began its campaign. Assuming that these two events have at least some causal relationship, the effect that this newfound emphasis on mitigation has had on the number of death sentences in Texas raises some serious questions about the general fairness of the death penalty.

When it declared a moratorium on the death penalty in the 1970s, the Supreme Court was primarily concerned that the death penalty was arbitrarily and capriciously imposed. Many of the changes made to the death penalty over the years have been designed to fix this problem. Yet even with all these changes, highly arbitrary factors – such as geography, the disposition of the District Attorney, and the gamble that a small sample size of 12 citizens will actually be a representative cross-section of society – still reign supreme when it comes to death sentences. Toobin points out in his article, for instance, that if Harris County, Texas, were an independent state, it would trail only the rest of Texas in the number of death sentences handed down in the country. Similarly, in California, 85% of all death sentences come from a mere 17% of the state’s counties.

This arbitrariness also extends to the realm of mitigation defense. Consider, for instance, the case of Manuel Babbitt. In 1980, Babbitt killed an elderly Sacramento, California, resident in her home. Soon thereafter Babbitt’s brother turned him into police after finding him in possession of some of the victim’s property. Babbitt was a Vietnam War combat veteran who fought in the 77-day siege of Khe Sahn, oftentimes referred to as the most savage battle in the war. Babbitt had only a 7th grade education and had to get help from a recruiter to pass the entrance test into the Army. During Khe Sahn, Babbitt was wounded in the skull by pieces of shrapnel, an injury for which he was later awarded the Purple Heart.

After serving a second combat tour in Vietnam, Babbitt returned home and began a long spree of escalating criminal activity that eventually led to his detention at the Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts – a hospital for the criminally insane, where Babbitt was declared mentally ill. During his stay at the hospital, Babbitt attempted suicide three times. After his release, he degenerated further until his eventual murder conviction in 1980 and execution in 1999. Babbitt did not have access to a mitigation specialist similar to GRACE. Instead, Babbitt had an alcoholic public defender who would drink in court. Had Babbitt’s defense team discussed his history of post traumatic stress disorder and mental illness, perhaps the jury would have been inclined spare him death.

While the increasing use of the mitigation defense had resulted in fewer death sentences, it still leaves some unsettling questions about the arbitrariness of capital punishment in the United States. If it is assumed that at least some condemned inmates – Manuel Babbitt, for instance – would have been spared death had they been provided with a robust mitigation defense, then we can add one more variable to the legal lottery that decides who lives and who dies. When geography and the personal views of the local district attorney are life and death factors for defendants, and if taking 30 minutes to discuss one’s biography is enough to save oneself from death, as is strongly suggested by the correlation discussed in Toobin’s article, then capital punishment is still being arbitrarily and capriciously imposed in the Unites States.

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Help End Connecticut's Death Penalty!

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on May 5th, 2011

As active death penalty opponents are likely to be aware, it is becoming increasingly likely that Connecticut will become the seventeenth state to abolish the death penalty. Repeal legislation has made its way through the state's joint Judiciary Committee, and state senators will soon have an opportunity to vote on this historic legislation. While the vote is likely to be close, commentators believe the bill will pass, and Governor Dan Malloy has said he will sign the legislation if and when it reaches his desk.

As exciting as this news is, this will not be the first time that Connecticut has gotten close to abolition, as a 2009 repeal bill passed both houses only to be vetoed by then Governor M. Jodi Rell. Once again, it appears as though the death penalty will no go away without a fight, as proponents (most notably Dr. William Petit, Jr. whose family was killed in a grizzly 2007 home invasion) have been campaigning aggressively against the bill.

Interestingly, some of the legislation's most vocal supporters have, like Dr. Petit, lost family members to violent crime. In an open letter to Connecticut's legislature, a coalition of 76 co-victims urges for end to capital punishment, arguing that "rather than preventing violence, [the death penalty] only perpetuates it and inflicts further pain on survivors." Citing the incredibly lengthy and emotionally devastating appeals process, as well as the policy's tendency to unfairly elevate, as more heinous, some murders over others, the letter's drafters have put together an articulate plea and heartbreaking call to put an end to this cycle of killing.

While it is fortunately only a very small number of us who can truly understand these co-victims perspective, it falls on all of us to support them in ensuring that this historic legislation passes. Please take a moment to take action and play, however small, a role in ending this broken system before it claims any more lives.

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Actual death penalty abolition would be a lot cheaper than de facto moratorium

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on May 4th, 2011

After Governor Brown called off the construction of a new $356 million death row facility earlier this week, the Warden of San Quentin suggested that, at the earliest, it might be another year before the state beings executing inmates again. There have been no executions in California since 2006, when Judge Jeremy Fogel declared the moratorium. Fogel felt there was enough merit to concerns that the state’s lethal injection procedures might cause inmates unnecessary pain, and would thus be in violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Since that time the state has changed its procedure to better comport with Fogel’s demands. The Warden, however, wants time to train a new team of 20 executioners – a task that will likely take over a year. This move will extend the state’s de facto moratorium into its sixth year.

The move will also raise some questions about California’s fiscal priorities. For at least six years, California’s taxpayers will have been footing the bill for a death row that doesn’t execute anyone. It would be far cheaper for the state to simply make things official and become a death penalty free state. Since 1978, only 13 inmates on California’s death row have been executed, compared with the 78 deaths from other causes. Taking the program’s budget over the past 33 years into account, some simple arithmetic shows that California taxpayers have spent approximately $250m on each execution. When state universities are doubling tuition, teachers are being laid off, and police departments being downsized to the point where they can only respond to certain 911 calls, does it really make sense to drop this much money on a system that might, without hyperbole, actually be the most inefficient government-run program in the country?

48 Hours Mystery Details Wrongful Death Sentence of Anthony Graves

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on May 2nd, 2011

48 Hours Mystery recently aired a new video detailing the story of Anthony Graves, a Texas man who was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. After his wrongful conviction, Graves spent 18 years of his life awaiting execution on death row. The video highlights two regular problems in death penalty cases – innocence and prosecutorial misconduct.

After a family of six was murdered in 1992, investigators refused to believe that the admitted murderer, Robert Carter, acted alone. Investigators pressed Carter to divulge the name of his supposed accomplice, and he eventually implicated Anthony Graves. Before testifying against Graves in court, Carter privately recanted his story, so the prosecution decided to cut a deal: If Carter testified, the prosecution would not ask about his wife’s involvement. Carter acquiesced.

Furthermore, when Graves’s girlfriend was about to testify that Graves had spent the entire night of the murder at home with her, the prosecutor made a veiled threat that if she did testify, she too might be implicated in the murder. At the last minute she decided not to testify. “They put him in jail […] on nothing,” she said, “what's to stop them from putting me in jail on nothing?”

The prosecution, of course, failed to divulge any of this information to the defense. Graves was found guilty and was sentenced to death.

While he was awaiting execution on death row, Robert Carter repeatedly told fellow prisoners that Anthony Graves played no part in the murder. Furthermore, moments before being executed in 2000, Carter said as his final statement, “It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court."

Despite this information, Graves hopelessly remained on death row until a group of journalism students at St. Thomas University began investigating the case: "We weren't out to prove anyone innocent. That was not our goal. Our goal was just to find out the truth.” Over time, these students began to reveal the prosecution’s unorthodox methods, and soon the case against Graves crumbled. Due in large part to these revelations, Graves’s case was eventually reversed by an appellate court.

After he was freed from death row, however, Graves had to spend the next four years in jail awaiting his retrial. The new prosecutor, with a 19-0 record in her previous death penalty cases, eventually met with Graves’s defense team and told them that she had no evidence that Graves was even remotely involved in the murder, and that she was dropping the charges: “This guy's innocent - not just not guilty, but innocent."

Texas stole 18 prime years of a man’s life and destroyed his family’s reputation. "I wanted people to know that my mother didn't raise a murderer. My mother raised a good son. That meant something to me." Texas also came tantalizingly close to executing an innocent man. At the very least this case demonstrates that with our current system, mistakes still happen – our system is clearly flawed, and when the stakes are so high that lives hang in the balance, a flawed system is unacceptable.

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Governor Brown Puts Kibosh on New Death Row

Posted by Zac Stone, Guest Blogger on May 2nd, 2011

Those involved in the movement to abolish the death penalty in California might have heard that the state could save a billion dollars over the next five years by halting the archaic practice. Last Thursday, Governor Jerry Brown took a step toward making that a reality by cancelling plans to build a shiny new death row at San Quentin State Prison that would have housed an absurd 1,152 inmates, as opposed to the current 700+, and stood to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a statement about his decision, Gov. Brown said, "At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the state of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals."

"California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates. It would be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us."

While condemned inmates deserve not to live in squalor, improvements can be made to the existing death row infrastructure without splurging in an economic downturn on facilities aimed ultimately at taking life. Money spent on education and law enforcement will go further toward lowering crime and keeping more people out of the cycle of violence that surrounds death row inmates and their families.

The state had budgeted $356 million for the new death row facilities at San Quentin, of which $20 million has already been spent since 2003 on designing and planning. State auditors released projections in 2008 that put the cost closer to $1.6 billion over 20 years. Realistically, cost projections on big construction projects are almost always lower than their ultimate expense to taxpayers.

Still, construction does not make up the bulk of the expenses related to the death penalty, even really expensive construction projects. The ACLU has estimated (pdf) that each year, keeping death-sentenced inmates separate from the general prison population costs California an extra $90,000 per inmate, more than $60 million annually. Another roughly $60 million is spent each year on capital prosecution and defense.

Many of these costs cannot be reduced without running the risk of imprisoning or executing an innocent person. All of these costs could be reduced to a pittance in comparison if the death penalty were replaced with life without parole, and in fact, new polling data (pdf) by David Binder Research shows Californians are strongly in support of just that - 63 percent of Californians are in favor of the governor converting all death sentences to life without the chance of parole, with a mere 28 percent opposed to the idea. Such a move would free up funds for public education and law enforcement without releasing a single inmate, and it even has the benefit of being supported by solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and particularly independent voters.

Having taken this important initial step of nixing the new death row, Gov. Brown must continue to save the state's precious resources by commuting the sentences of California's more than 700 death row inmates to life without parole. With Californians and others ever more willing to survive without the outdated punishment, it's a no-brainer that will save money and human lives.

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Marie Deans, Ardent Abolitionist, Leaves Giant Shoes to Fill

Posted by Zac Stone on April 29th, 2011
Deans with Giarratano after a hard-fought battle for clemency

Marie Deans, a death penalty abolition activist and founder of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (a founding partner of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty), died on April 15, 2011, at the age of 70. Following the murder of her mother-in-law by an escaped prisoner in the early '70s, Deans worked tirelessly for the rights of death row inmates, and formed close bonds with the men she helped and their families. Deans had a particularly close relationship with Joe Giarratano, whose death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in 1991 due in large part to Deans' hard work on his behalf.

Giarratano was convicted after a 1979 capital trial in Norfolk, Virginia, that lasted all of four hours. He was sentenced to death for the double murder of Toni and Michelle Kline, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, including erroneous confessions, police coercion, and strong physical evidence implicating another as yet unidentified suspect. After a hard-fought campaign by Deans, then-Governor Douglas Wilder commuted Giarratano's sentence a mere 36 hours before he was to be executed (it may be noted that Virginia is not a death penalty retentionist state that maintains long delays between sentencing and execution). Politics would keep Giarratano in prison to this day, but Marie Deans would keep him active; Joe was a major player in the 1990s campaign for clemency of his fellow inmate Earl Washington Jr., who was granted clemency and ultimately received a pardon after DNA tests proved his innocence.

DPF President Mike Farrell joined Joe Giarratano's campaign for clemency at the behest of Marie Deans in the 1980s, when she was in charge of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons. Mike has previously heaped praise upon Deans, writing:

"An ardent abolitionist, Marie is an angel of mercy to the men on Virginia's death row. She offered counseling, advice, a willing ear and any kind of help she could bring to ease their plight. I knew her as a determined advocate who would not rest until the condemned had fully realized every benefit that was guaranteed them by law or by God, whether those in authority liked it or not. And many did not."

"Working with Joe and the rest of the men on death row was beyond a calling for Marie, it was a way to deal with what she saw as a terrible social wrong. Seeing the value in those whom the state had dehumanized, in cases like Giarratano's digging it out of a reluctant heap of self-hatred, was as natural to her as breathing, as much a part of being a member of society as was treating one's neighbor with respect. And despite the contempt many in the system felt for the inmates, Marie's simple decency and fundamental honesty won her many admirers, even a few converts."

An indefatigable advocate for the civil rights of society's most vulnerable, Deans will be remembered among death penalty abolitionists not only for her hard work, but her humanity, her compassion. Joe Giarratano still sits in a Viriginia prison for a crime he did not commit, and he just lost his most fervent supporter and a close friend. The abolition movement has lost a strong voice. The work of Marie Deans must continue for the sake of the innocent and for all Americans vulnerable to the justice system, but it won't happen on its own.

For more information about Joe, please visit the website of his campaign for clemency; letters of support and condolence can be sent to Joseph Giarratano, #1027820, Wallens Ridge State Prison, PO Box 759, Big Stone Gap, VA, 24219. Death Penalty Focus is accepting donations in Marie's memory.

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Dear Jerry Brown, Please Cut the Death Penalty

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on April 28th, 2011

Dear Governor Brown,

In the opening months of his first term, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where he argued that:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." (April 16, 1953)

While President Eisenhower was speaking to the problem of excessive national and global defense spending, his words are still relevant today as California faces the challenge of balancing public safety against the need to provide all of its citizens with essential services. The "theft" we face today, however, does not occur at the barrel of a gun, but instead can be found in the fiscal and moral disaster of a futile, extravagantly expensive, and socially divisive quagmire which is our broken death penalty system.

Today, a strong, smart, and effective law enforcement and criminal justice system is more incumbent than ever. Such a system must not only provide our police and corrections officers with the support they deserve and require, but must also integrate itself with our social service and mental health systems in order to "connect the dots," thereby preventing, as well as solving and punishing, violent crimes.

When such preventative measures tragically fail, society has an obligation to crime victims and their families. We must do everything in our power to ensure that families are not trapped in an unresponsive legal system, and are instead provided a helping hand on the long road to healing.

Sadly, building such a system is close to impossible as long as we are committed to capital punishment.

Each year, according to a 2008 study by the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, our State spends at least $137 million on the death penalty. By replacing this punishment with permanent imprisonment, and scrapping the $400 million dollar plans for a "new and improved" Death Row, we could save $1 billion over the next five years. In doing so, we would have also replaced an arbitrarily applied and incredibly inefficient punishment with a swift, certain, and uniform penalty for our most heinous murders.

Californians as diverse as self-styled "hanging judge" Donald A. McCartin of the Superior Court of Orange County, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti of Los Angeles County, and former Warden Jeanne Woodford of San Quentin Prison have all learned from their experience in seeking, imposing, and actually carrying out death sentences that permanent imprisonment is a better and more fiscally viable choice.

And families of murder victims, like Judy Kerr and the California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, are joining their voices to the mounting chorus for a more balanced and dignified system of justice, sharing their own unique experiences and wisdom obtained at an unimaginable price. We would do well to pay attention to their perspective as it is in their name that we carry out executions.

While only voters can change the law, as Governor, you hold the awesome and indeed sacred power of clemency, which you can use to not only stop the "theft" of resources from Californian families who desperately need them, but also to exercise the craft of leadership by bringing us together in the common pursuit of justice for victims of crime and for society at large.

As your decades of public service have undoubtedly taught you, the death penalty has served as a wedge issue in California politics, dividing voters and communities, and distracting us from more constructive and cost-effective alternatives.

Fortunately, more and more Californians -- indeed a powerful majority, to judge by one recent scientific survey -- are asking for swift, severe, and thrifty alternatives to a system where over 700 men and women are confined for decades on Death Row, when they could be serving sentences of permanent imprisonment at far less cost to society, and indeed be making restitution for their crimes.

While this 2009 survey showed that 66% of Californians polled were in favor of "the death penalty" in the abstract, when offered the option of life imprisonment without parole plus restitution to the families of the victims, only 26% continued to support capital punishment.

Since California's 1977 and 1978 capital murder statutes were enacted, the law has provided a mandatory penalty of permanent imprisonment for any death eligible crime. It is noteworthy that while only 13 prisoners have been executed under these statutes, more than 700 are now on Death Row. Over 3000 prisoners have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Of these thousands of prisoners, only a handful have been released - and this was only after they were shown to be actually innocent of the crimes for which they were incarcerated!

The fact that such cases are rare reflects the skill and determination of our peace officers, prosecutors, jurors and judges, who are committed to convicting the guilty while taking care always to protect and acquit the innocent. The fact that mistakes do happen, however, is a sobering reminder that we are only human, and that permanent imprisonment, unlike execution, allows room for us to repair miscarriages of justice when they are discovered.

As your father, Governor Pat Brown, discussed in his memoir Public Justice, Private Mercy: A Governor's Education on Death Row, there was sometimes an agonizing ethical conflict between doing what he felt was just in deciding the issue of life or death for a condemned prisoner, and doing what he felt was necessary to preserve his ability to effectively serve the people of California.

Today, however, it seems as though these two imperatives are more in line than in conflict. In the California of 2011, governing effectively means taking control of the budget, and husbanding resources to serve those "who are not fed" or "are not clothed." To do this, we must address the imperatives of excellence in education and preeminence in technological innovation.

At the same time, we need a system of law enforcement and justice which can protect our citizens and communities, and bring prompt and responsive justice for victims of crime and their families.

To meet these goals, the draining of our time and money into the bottomless sinkhole of a broken and unfixable death penalty system simply must be stopped, and these resources need to be redirected to proven and effective law enforcement efforts and victims' services which can stem the tide of criminal violence while bringing us all together in the quest for a more just, secure, and prosperous society.

At this hour of crisis, Californians need to find common ground. The policy of permanent imprisonment provides it: it means swift punishment for criminals who will die in prison, and timely resolution of criminal cases so that the families of murder victims can move on without having their wounds reopened by decades of appeals addressing the unique issues and enormities raised by capital punishment.

Polling suggests that permanent imprisonment plus restitution can command strong majority support, uniting supporters and opponents of the death penalty. When invited to consider the alternatives, citizens and voters want to be both tough and smart on crime.

And in today's budget crisis, we can afford nothing less.

While only the voters of California can complete the process of legal reform and streamlining through an initiative, you are in a position, with one telling stroke of your pen, to move over 700 prisoners from an exorbitantly expensive residence on Death Row to more thrifty accommodations where they will meet the same fate that they were likely to receive on the row, a natural death in prison.

And thus, without releasing a single prisoner, you may at once save Californians a billion dollars over the next five years, and lead us forward in the agenda of human dignity and social progress for which you and your family have stood over these many long decades of devoted and courageous public service.

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Doctor Death

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on April 27th, 2011

George Denkowski, a psychologist in Texas whose practice of declaring most anyone intellectually competent to face execution earned him the nickname "Dr. Death," will no longer be able to conduct intellectual disability evaluations after reaching a settlement with the psychology licensing board and attorneys representing 14 men he evaluated for the prosecution.

Democracy Now! and journalist Renee Feltz have covered the case and in the video below have shown the hard work done by activists and journos to reveal publically the flaws of the death penalty and how difficult it is to attain justice for those accused of terrible crimes. They have demonstrated quite clearly just how easy it is to jump to conclusions when one is an "expert"; an example of Denkowski's expertise, given in a short interview by Dr. Jerome Brown, would be laughable if it were not such a travesty of psychological expertise.

The most shocking part of the case is that Denkowski received no more than a reprimand and a fine of $5,500, under the condition that he no longer take on criminal cases, which will inevitably put the lives of 14 men in limbo while courts decide if the settlement is enough to take them off of death row. Denkowski did not have to admit that he had done anything wrong and the licensing board, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, did not find any wrongdoing.

Surely a person found guilty of a terrible crime does not lose his human status and right to fair and valid testing procedures? Dr. Denkowski has tested and found mentally able 16 men on death row in Texas. Two of these men have been executed, having possibly suffered cruel and unusual punishment, according to the Atkins v. Virginia ruling of the Supreme Court in 2002, because they would have been unable to understand the concept of consequences for their actions. Kathryn Kase, the second interviewee in the video, underlined this lack of humanity toward defendants when she explained that defense lawyers are often instructed to find "cheaper" rather than quality experts for their clients, illustrating the justice system's underlying bias against appellants.

It is our hope that aside from no longer practicing intellectual disability evaluations in death penalty trials, Texas courts will see the damning evidence against Denkowski's procedures - which have resulted in a number of intellectually disabled inmates being sentenced to death and are unequivocally panned by the psychology community - and agree with State Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston who says that every case involving Denkowski should be reviewed.

Said Ellis, who serves as the chairman of the Innocence Project board of directors, "We cannot simply shrug our shoulders and sit by and watch while the state uses legal technicalities to execute these intellectually disabled men."

Texas, which executes more inmates than any other state, faces a host of problems with its justice system. Arson investigations and convictions, lethal injection drugs, and mental health evaluations are just three of the system's glitches that have recently been publicized. If death were not so final, the issues would not be so crucial.

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Forensic Science Commission Issues New Guidelines, Waits to Assign Responsibility

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on April 26th, 2011

The Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) issued sixteen recommendations on Friday, April 15th, which will provide guidance for investigators, attorneys, and lawmakers charged with looking into potential arsons.  The recommendations, which include calls for more education and training for arson investigators, as well as a new system for reviewing closed cases as science evolves, represent good faith efforts to improve Texas’ forensic science in the face of serious questions about the methods used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man who was executed in 2004 for allegedly starting a fire which took the lives of his three children.

Mr. Willingham, an unemployed mechanic, consistently maintained his innocence throughout the course of his incarceration, and multiple posthumous investigations have revealed that there was no conclusive evidence that the fire was set intentionally.  The nine-member commission has been tasked with sorting out exactly what happened in the Willingham case and its reports are designed to provide a framework which aligns Texas’ procedures with the most modern scientific techniques.

Unfortunately, the TFSC has faced resistance as it searches for the truth, much of it coming from the Governor’s office.  Governor Rick Perry seems to have a vested interest in suppressing debate over the circumstances of Mr. Willingham’s conviction as it was he who ignored scientific studies which suggested that there was “nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire” when he denied Mr. Willingham’s clemency request in 2004.  Governor Perry has played politics with the Commission, changing its composition right before it was scheduled to review a report which took serious issue with the trial testimony used to convict Mr. Willingham.  The new Commissioner cancelled this meeting, introducing another year of delay before a July 2010 panel issued analysis which condemned the prosecution’s “flawed science.”

This sort of political gamesmanship is not completely absent from the Commission’s current proceedings, as last week’s report does not, and will not, include any official assessments of investigator misconduct until it receives word from the state’s attorney general who will decide if such sanctions are within the Commission’s jurisdiction.  According to Sam Bassett, the Commissioner deposed by Perry in 2009, such judgments are already within TFSC’s purview, and the current maneuvering indicates that “politics rather than science will influence the decision.”

In spite of these concerns, the report represents an important tool for preventing miscarriages of justice like those experienced by Mr. Willingham from happening again.  As long as Texas continues to execute people at an alarmingly fast rate, there will be a premium on devising safeguards which will prevent further wrongful convictions, and in this respect, the new regulations are truly life savers.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | 1 comments

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on April 26th, 2011

States Engage in Lethal Injection Drug Trade

Posted by Zac Stone on April 22nd, 2011

States around the country that retain the death penalty have for months been struggling to procure the most commonly used anesthetic in lethal injections, sodium thiopental. Following a shortage in raw materials by the sole U.S. manufacturer and the company's subsequent departure from the thiopental market, corrections officials in a number of states have scrambled to find an appropriate replacement for the drug, with many states turning to pentobarbital and still others engaging in a bona fide barbiturate black market among various state corrections departments.

Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas have already adopted pentobarbital and used it, either in the place of thiopental in a three-drug lethal injection protocol, or in one large dose, as the drug has long been used to euthanize animals. In humans, pentobarbital is most often used to induce coma, generally in brain-damaged patients, and occasionally to stop seizures when other drugs are ineffective. Thus far it has been easier for states to acquire pentobarbital than thiopental, as it is still produced in the U.S., specifically at a plant in Kansas. The plant is owned by Denmark's Lundbeck A/S, however, which has gotten Denmark's foreign minister Lene Espersen involved.

Espersen said she has "no possibility to take direct action at American states' use of the product for executions," as it is not exported from within the country, but she has promised to contact those states using pentobarbital from Lundbeck's plant in Kansas through the Danish embassy in Washington, to urge them against using the company's products in lethal injections. Realistically, and regrettably, the chances of that making a difference are slim.

Among those states that have not switched to pentobarbital, many have created what the New York Times recently described as a "legally questionable swap club" around the existing American thiopental stocks. At least four states - Arkansas, Georgia, Arizona, and California - purchased thiopental from a sketchy British pharmaceutical supplier before the country banned its export for use in lethal injections. Now the states that beat the new British law have been supplying those whose stores are depleted. Wendy Kelley, a deputy director of Arkansas's corrections department, acknowledged in a deposition that her state had provided free thiopental to Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, saying, "As best as I'm aware, the agreement my director had with other directors, any time there was an exchange, was that there would be a payback when needed."

The Obama Administration has reacted to the situation in somewhat contradictory ways; the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Georgia's thiopental, which was imported from the U.K. without DEA oversight, while the Justice Department on Wednesday urged a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges states' abilities to purchase lethal injection drugs from overseas without FDA approval. The justice department's motion suggests that it is within the FDA's discretion to allow lethal injection drugs into the country without first inspecting them.

Surely that does not tell the whole story, though, as the DEA also appropriated Kentucky's and Tennessee's thiopental stocks earlier this month. California's thiopental reserves, also imported from the U.K., were lab tested after they arrived and were certified sufficiently potent, but unrelated lawsuits have kept inmates from being executed in California for the past five years, and will likely continue to do so for some time, though the state continues to spend millions prosecuting capital cases and sentencing inmates to death. Arizona used its thiopental in two recent executions in which both inmates kept their eyes open long after they should with an effective sedative, indicating they were not properly anesthetized before cardiac arrest was induced. Still, the state has scheduled the execution of Donald Edward Beaty for May 25th without making a single change to the lethal injection protocol, all but ensuring that yet another inmate will suffer extreme pain at the hands of the state, and corrections officials will again unwittingly be made into torturers. Changes must be made to avoid this lamentable outcome, and every legal channel ought to remain open to ensure states do not circumvent federal drug laws in a misguided rush to kill inmates.

Will Botswana be the next country to abolish the death penalty?

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on April 21st, 2011

Botswana is a progressive and successful African country, the world's third largest producer of diamonds and the setting of the popular novels and television series " The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and its leading character, the redoubtable Mma Precious Remotswe. But unfortunately, like many US states, it still has the death penalty. However if the country's primary political opposition leader has his way, the country may soon become one of the three countries each year that get rid of the death penalty.

Duma Boko is both the leader of the Botswana National Front Party, the opposition party to the current government, and a prominent death penalty defense attorney. His client, Brandon Sampson, faces execution in July 2011. It should come as no surprise that Boko is also an outspoken supporter of abolishing the death penalty. In a recent interview with IPS ('It Cheapens Human Life', Inter Press Service, April 13, 2011 ) Boko explained his reasons for opposing the death penalty, fundamental reasons which have significance to every country which still employs capital punishment.

His first reason is the most basic: the irrevocability of the death sentence.

Secondly, Boko tackled the myth that the death penalty provides closure for the victims, "I don't think it makes them feel better. No one has done that study here to establish that it does." (I would like to direct Mr. Boko to the recent study by two sociologists from Kentucky which confirms his point by showing that executions fail to bring closure for victims' families:

"What I think it does is that it cheapens human life," Mr Boko continued. And went on to make his third point: "The society that celebrates death by the state is an immature society. If we think our people are that immature, we need either to educate them or to establish if indeed they are.

"Because you may find that they are far from being that immature. It is the state that is immature in this regard and the legal system that forces judges and the state to be that immature." I think Mr Boko is advocating that the state should take the moral high ground in this issue and not just satisfy popular demand for the death penalty, which is found in many countries worldwide irrespective of whether or not they have capital punishment.

Finally, Duma Boko pointed out another common failure of the death penalty: under-resourced defense lawyers. He explained that the state prosecution had "all the facilities", whereas the defense depended largely on the commitment of individual lawyers who did not enjoy the same facilities as the prosecution. "There is no equality of arms, if you will, when the attorney representing the accused person does not have the same resources as the state. That is basically violating the constitution and that violation must itself vitiate the imposition of the death penalty on an individual. So it is a real challenge."

Needless to say, if Duma Boko were to become President of Botswana, he is committed to seeking a moratorium on executions or outright repeal of the death penalty: "…when I am at the helm of that government, I will not sign anybody's death warrant whether the law says so or not."

I hope that Duma Boko's appeal on behalf of Brandon Sampson is successful, but even more than that; I hope he is able to lead Botswana's efforts to end the death penalty in the near future.

And perhaps the question of capital punishment could be considered by Mma Precious Remotswe in some future volume of that famous detective agency?

CT Murder Victim Family Members Tell Legislators: Not in our Name!

Posted by Aarti Kelapure on April 20th, 2011

Originally published on the Daily Kos on April 19, 2011.

By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU Center for Justice

When I was a child, my cousin was brutally murdered.  As far as our family knows,  the police never found his killer.

A few years later, another cousin of mine was murdered in prison. His killers were in cahoots with his jailers, so none of them was ever prosecuted.

No one received the death penalty for these murders, and as a beloved family member of murder victims, I would never have supported pursuing capital punishment in either case.

As legislators in Connecticut grapple with a bill that would abolish the death penalty in the state, murder victims' families are speaking loudly about their opposition to Connecticut's capital punishment system. There is a tension. On one hand, victims' family members need finality and an end to reliving their loved one's horrible death in the media and the courts. But that kind of finality is not immediate, because the Constitution requires due process, effective counsel, and protection against wrongful conviction for those sentenced to death. The years of legal appeals before an execution extend and exacerbate murder victims' families' suffering.

During a public hearing last month on the pending death penalty abolition bill, the  stories of numerous victims' family members had a common theme: in order for the needs of murder victims' family members to be served, the death penalty must be replaced with permanent imprisonment, a more cost-effective alternative that would free up limited state resources for additional services for victims.

Gail Canzano, whose brother-in-law was murdered, explains: "(H)omicide grief is not assuaged by retribution; it is, in fact, worsened. . . The death penalty is a cruel hoax. It accomplishes nothing. It wastes millions of dollars and it further victimizes families who are already broken with grief."

Law enforcement, religious leaders and many others have come together in the state to support eliminating the broken capital punishment system. It is too costly, targets people of color for greater punishment, and mistakes are made. The current bill would replace the death penalty with life in prison with no possibility of release; it would not affect pending cases or previous sentences.

To show your support for abolition of the death penalty in Connecticut, click here.

When a loved one is murdered, the whole world as you know it comes crashing down, never to be the same again. But more killing won't bring the loved one back. It will, however, bring more pain for yet another family.

And I am a firm believer that the murder remains on the conscience of the killer forever — and that is a heavy burden they will never escape.

Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims | no comments

Deficit spending: A Federal Death Penalty Extravaganza

Posted by Margo Schulter on April 19th, 2011

As Standard and Poor’s threatens to downgrade the credit rating of the United States of America, and the debate on the deficit and income tax rates continues, the Department of Justice continues a mode of truly extravagant spending: the federal death penalty.

This spending is especially gratuitous when the federal government disregards a community's own values and policies by seeking the death penalty in jurisdictions like the State of New York which do not themselves practice judicial homicide.

As reported by the New York Times and the Death Penalty Information Center, the federal government may end up spending $10 million on the capital murder trial of Vincent Basciano, a convicted murderer and racketeer who is presently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the 2008 killing of fellow mobster Frank Santoro.  Bonnano crime family boss Joseph C. Massino broke the mafia’s code of silence and has testified that Basciano ordered the 2004 murder of Bonnano associate Randolph Pizzolo.  It is important to note that Mr. Massino is currently serving time for eight different murders, and has offered his testimony in attempt to reduce his sentence.

When the Government decided to seek the death penalty, Federal District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis wisely urged Attorney General Eric Holder to reconsider this decision, noting that "Basciano is already sentenced to life imprisonment. He is designated to serve his sentence under extremely restrictive conditions in one of the nation's most secure
penal institutions." That institution, ADX Florence in Colorado, is a federal "supermax" prison which employs state of the art security measures designed to accommodate the most dangerous federal offenders, including mobsters and terrorists.

Instead of taking the hint from Judge Garaufis, however, the Attorney General responded by confirming the Government's decision to seek the death penalty, thus leading to a most telling headline in the New York Daily News: "Attorney General Eric Holder wants former Bonnano crime boss Vincent (Vinny Gorgeous) Basciano dead."

Mr. Holder’s eagerness to pursue the death penalty is deeply disappointing as it brings the entire U.S. justice system down to the homicidal level of the criminals we prosecute. Additionally, the decision to seek death despite New York’s seven year ban on the practice runs the risk of making an already extremely costly process even more expensive as going through the process of selecting a jury willing to apply the death sentence is more challenging in jurisdictions which no longer practice capital punishment.  All this energy is likely to amount to no change from Basciano’s current condition, as most federal capital trials where the defendant is convicted actually end with a penalty of life imprisonment, an outcome that seems especially likely given that New Yorkers have already rejected the death penalty.

Regardless of the outcome in the Pizzolo case, Vincent Basciano will spend the rest of his life behind bars.  Knowing this, it is hard to understand how the Attorney General’s office could justify the enormous fiscal and moral costs of a capital trial.  Our current economic difficulties make it imperative that we continue to advocate for abolition, the kindest budget cut of all.  It is time for us to abandon the pursuit of purely symbolic “victories” and turn our limited resources towards measures that will actually prevent violent crimes.

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What do Hilary Swank and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn have in common?

Posted by Sara Bolder on April 19th, 2011
Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank

What do Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Hilary Swank and The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange have in common? They are all receiving awards on May 12th from Death Penalty Focus. Join us at the Beverly Hilton for a fun and inspiring evening. Other honorees are Stephen Bright, President of The Southern Center for Human Rights, Lance Lindsey, recently retired Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, and the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley Law School, led by Elisabeth Semel and Ty Alper. More info and ticket purchase here: DPF Awards Dinner

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DNA Evidence Offers Longtime Death Row Inmate a Chance at Justice

Posted by Zac Stone on April 19th, 2011
William "Tommy" Zeigler last year, photo by Jacob Langston of the Orlando Sentinel

Last week Tommy Zeigler won an important battle for further DNA testing in his death penalty appeal. Zeigler was convicted of murdering his wife, in-laws, and a customer at his furniture store in Winter Garden, Florida on Christmas Eve 1975. Having sat on Florida's death row for decades, a judge has now ordered new tests to be performed on blood from the crime scene that Zeigler claims will exonerate him.

Zeigler was arrested and tried on the theory that he killed his wife to collect half a million dollars in life insurance, and that he shot himself to cover up his crime and frame it as an invasion. Zeigler has never wavered in his account of what happened, and passed polygraph tests asserting that he and his family were victims of a robbery that may have been motivated by Zeigler's involvement in uncovering a loan-sharking ring victimizing migrant workers.

Numerous injustices occurred over the course of Zeigler's trial and subsequent incarceration, including the misplacing and knowing destruction of evidence; reports offering exculpatory evidence were turned over to the defense team with very little time to prepare, or were not disclosed at all; a number of jurors in his original trial (half of whom first voted to acquit Zeigler, but were persuaded to convict) have come out in his support, and a couple have admitted to being prescribed Valium so they would be more amenable to convict a man whose guilt was in doubt. Prosecutors used witnesses that identified Zeigler as the killer while ignoring those eyewitnesses whose stories did not mesh with the state's fictionalized account.

Christine Cooper is the daughter of Robert Thompson, the former Central Florida police chief who was the first police officer at the crime scene. Cooper said she believes "the justice system failed" Zeigler. Thompson was involved as a mercenary in the arms trade in Central America in the 1980s, and his daughter says he died in 1999 "taking a lot of secrets with him." Thompson suppressed a report after the crime that did not surface until 1987 in which he wrote that the blood on Zeigler was dry when he found him, yet in its case against him, the state claimed Zeigler had just shot himself minutes earlier.

While the suspicions of the daughter of a deceased police chief are certainly not enough to overturn a murder conviction, Cooper's doubt and that of a number of witnesses and jurors lend credence to Zeigler's claim of innocence. It is clear that the case was mishandled, and justice was not properly served. Failed by the justice system on more than one occasion, Tommy Zeigler has been afforded his best chance in decades of receiving true justice with this admission of new DNA evidence. Should his sentence ultimately be reversed, Zeigler will join the nearly two dozen former Florida inmates who have been exonerated from death row since the 1970s. Please visit our Florida Action page to add your voice to those in favor of abolishing the state's failed death penalty system.

Posted in Blog, Innocence | 3 comments

Ending the Death Penalty: A Global Perspective

Posted by on April 14th, 2011

In his recent book, Ending the Death Penalty : The European Experience in Global Perspective, Andrew Hammel compares the successful abolitionist movements in Europe to their so-far unsuccessful counterparts in the US. It has long been perplexing that countries so similar in history, culture, and wealth would differ so markedly when it comes to capital punishment. Hammel attacks this problem by analyzing the abolitionist movements in Germany, Great Britain, and France. In these countries a small group in the ruling elite abolished capital punishment even though public opinion was by and large decidedly in favor of it. Given the populist tendencies in the United States, as well as our strongly entrenched Federalist system, Hammel argues that, politically, such a top-down approach is next to impossible here.

In his review of Hammel' s book, Law Professor William Berry offers an alternative view which suggests that action from the U.S. Supreme Court might be a counter-majoritarian approach that could end the death penalty in America. Such action would most likely occur if the Court were convinced that the nation' s "standards of decency" had evolved to the point where the death penalty was considered a cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. When it rendered the Harmelin decision in 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that any new interpretation of the " evolving standards of decency " should "be informed by objective factors to the maximum possible extent." The Supreme Court added in Penry v. Lynaugh that these "objective factors" should come from examinations of the state legislatures and jury decisions.

With the necessity for such objective evidence in mind, it is of note that during the past decade there has been a noticeable national shift toward a de facto ban on capital punishment. Since 2007, the New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois state legislatures have all done away with the death penalty , leaving 34 states that retain it. In New York, where the court struck down the state' s statute, the state legislature refused to reinstate it.

Furthermore, between 1998 and 2009 there has been a clear trend in the number of new death sentences per year given by juries in the United States: 294 -> 277 -> 224 -> 159 -> 166 -> 152 -> 140 -> 139 -> 123 -> 120 -> 119 -> 112, a decline of 60% over 12 years. Additionally, since 2002, the Supreme Court has in three separate decisions, banned the execution of the mentally retarded, those under the age of 18 at the time of their crime, and those who committed a crime other than murder. In these cases, the Court cited " evolving standards of decency ."

The Court has at its fingertips viable objective data from various state legislatures and evidence of decreasing death verdicts by juries, both of which demonstrate a national shift is indeed occurring. Hammel and Berry suggest that the successful top-down approach taken to end the death penalty in Europe will only occur in the US only if the Supreme Court takes action. Given the declining number of death sentences and the growing list of states without the death penalty , perhaps the time is ripe for the Supreme Court to act.

The Courts, they are a-changin'

Posted by Zac Stone, Guest Blogger on April 13th, 2011
Our 2011 Supreme Court

The Roberts Court really hit its groove in 2010, stripping cities' gun control laws and destroying longstanding campaign finance regulations (or as they would have it: extending free speech rights to corporate Americans), but we're just one quarter of the way through 2011 and we have already seen far-reaching decisions by the Roberts Court resulting in an assault on Americans' civil liberties. The Court is ignoring and defying a mounting chorus of opposition to the death penalty both nationally and globally, and setting precedents that will not just harm violent criminals, but innocent citizens and their loved ones. The Supreme Court has had its share of death penalty advocates in its history, but John Roberts and his conservative cohort on the Court - Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and from time to time Anthony Kennedy (the "swing" voter) - have proven themselves willing to put finality above justice and fairness.

In 1972, by a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Furman v. Georgia that the nation's death penalty laws were constitutionally flawed because the statutes failed to narrow the use of the death penalty to just the worst of the worst. They extended a moratorium on new sentences until each state "fixed" its statute. Among those justices favoring the moratorium were William Douglas, William Brennan, Potter Stewart, Byron White, and Thurgood Marshall. Those dissenting, who believed the death penalty to be constitutional as it was applied, were Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist. Four years later, the Court, with John Paul Stevens in place of Douglas, would vote to reinstate the death penalty 7 to 2 in its historic Gregg v. Georgia decision. Only Justices Brennan and Marshall dissented, arguing that the death penalty has no deterrent effect and that our society has evolved beyond the need to kill for retribution.

By the time the Court issued its 1987 decision in McCleskey v. Kemp, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia had joined them, replacing Stewart and Burger. Writing for the majority, Lewis Powell dismissed a statistical study that showed killers of whites were 11 times more likely to be sentenced to die than those whose victims were Black. Four other justices agreed with Powell, who said the study failed to "demonstrate a constitutionally significant risk of racial bias," and was insufficient to invalidate Georgia's death penalty.

Time and time again, however, the statistics would prove consistent - to this day those who kill whites are significantly more likely to face execution than those who kill African-Americans or Latinos. His decision in McClesky v. Kemp would become one of Powell's great regrets; Powell told his biographer in 1991 he would reverse his McClesky decision if afforded the opportunity, saying he had "come to think that capital punishment should be abolished."

Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens both dissented in McClesky, but qualified their statements, distancing themselves from Justices Marshall and Brennan, who since Furman had openly stated that they believed the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment in any circumstance and that it could not be made fair. Blackmun would wait another six years before finally declaring the death penalty system "fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake" (Callins v. Collins, 1993).

"The problem," Justice Blackmun said, "is that the inevitability of factual, legal and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution."

John Paul Stevens' position on capital punishment evolved over his three decades on the court, but he too eventually concluded in 2008 that capital punishment is both "pointless and needless." He offered further insight in a New York Times essay published in late 2010, in which he wrote, "While support of the death penalty wins votes for some elected officials, all participants in the process must realize the monumental costs that capital cases impose on the judicial system. The financial costs…are obvious; seldom mentioned is the impact on the conscientious juror obliged to make a life-or-death decision despite residual doubts about a defendant's guilt." Consider also the impact on corrections officials and medical personnel put in the position of executing a person whose guilt is uncertain.

"Many [inmates] have repented and made positive contributions to society," Stevens wrote. "The finality of an execution always ends that possibility. More importantly, that finality also includes the risk that the state may put an actually innocent person to death."

The Roberts Court would do well to heed the wisdom of three of its predecessors, appointed by Republicans, informed by years on the bench, who all reversed course on the death penalty after or near the end of their tenure on the Court. It seems clear, however, that they don't share Justice Blackmun's resistance to "tinker with the machinery of death."

Just last month, the Court reversed a jury verdict and lower court ruling that had awarded a wrongfully-convicted man, John Thompson, a $14 million dollar settlement for the 14 years he spent on Louisiana's death row. Prosecutors supervised by Orleans Parish district attorney, Harry Connick, Sr. had covered up exculpatory evidence that demonstrated Thompson's innocence. Though Thompson was able to prove that multiple prosecutors withheld evidence that would have exonerated him, the Court found with Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority that, "a district attorney cannot be held liable for the actions of his subordinates." Justice Thomas claims one must prove a pattern of similar violations exists in order to justify holding the city's government liable for the misconduct; one Brady violation in Thompson's case, albeit egregious and involving numerous prosecutors, just doesn't cut it.

The Court has issued a dangerous precedent in Thompson's case. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated in her dissent, "The prosecutorial concealment Thompson encountered…is bound to be repeated unless municipal agencies bear responsibility." By saying the buck stops nowhere, the Court has effectively eliminated a defendant's ability to hold prosecutors accountable for willfully violating his civil liberties, giving prosecutors everywhere incentive to use similar underhanded tactics to achieve future guilty verdicts and death sentences.

Last week the Court's majority took the bizarre step of actually reinstating a death sentence in the case of Scott Lynn Pinholster, who suffered brain damage as a child that resulted in his intellectual disability, despite rulings by a federal judge and a federal appeals court that found Pinholster's attorneys had failed him by offering no mitigating evidence during his sentencing trial. You don't have to be a legal scholar to see the how knowingly ignoring evidence - exculpatory, mitigating, or otherwise, can lead to an injustice.

In light of its recent rulings, it is evident that a majority of the justices currently on the Court are willing to dismiss the opinions of those that came before them and a growing majority of the global community. The Court's majority has shown an indifference to human life and a willingness to erode civil liberties with no discernable benefits to our society.

If Justices Blackmun, Powell, and Stevens were able to travel back in time and reconsider Gregg v. Georgia, they would likely join Justices Brennan and Marshall in striking down the death penalty.

If just one of the Court's current sitting justices revised his thinking about the death penalty, we would likely see a drastic sea change on the matter.

Unfortunately, we cannot wait for reason to strike. America's 30-year experiment with the death penalty has failed. To protect human life, to save states' depleted financial resources, we must embrace ending the death penalty where we can, and limiting its use where abolition is currently politically impossible. To artificially prop up what Justice Blackmun described so long ago as a failed experiment is nonsensical. Upending the status quo has never been easy, but the Roberts Court and all of us ought to strongly consider the viable, life-affirming alternatives to America's overworked courts and bloated death row prisons.

"Closure" and Capital Punishment

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on April 12th, 2011

In their study, “Not In My Name: An Investigation of Victim’s Family Clemency Movements and Court Appointed Closure,” recently published in The Western Criminology Review, University of Louisville sociologists Thomas J. Mowen and Dr. Ryan D. Schroeder shine a spotlight on one of the more misunderstood elements of the death penalty, namely the effect that death sentences have on covictims, the surviving family of the murdered.  While victim’s family members are often trotted out as the main beneficiaries of capital punishment, Mowen and Schroeder’s research draws attention to the growing victim’s clemency movement and helps to explain how the recent emphasis on closure as a justification for the death penalty has in fact produced greater covictim opposition.  Their work also draws attention to the role media coverage plays in both representing and shaping public opinion on the death penalty, highlighting the way that newspapers have a tendency to overstate victim support for the system.

Mowen and Schroeder begin their analysis with a survey of the criminological research done on the justifications prevalently appealed to by death penalty supporters.  They note that the public generally accepts that there is little, if any, deterrent or fiscal benefit to capital punishment.  In spite of this, public support remains relatively strong (though drops dramatically in polls which compare death sentences to life without the possibility of parole).  The reason for this is that there has been a shift in justification from utilitarian policy concerns to an emphasis on moral arguments that focus on the importance of retribution and victim closure—i.e. the belief that executions are essential to providing family members with some emotional relief that allows them to ‘move past’ their suffering.  As recent research by Scott Vollum and Jacqueline Buffington-Vollum has shown, these types of value-expressive justifications are less vulnerable to change in the face of evidence which demonstrates the short-comings of capital punishment than arguments that focus on the policy’s effectiveness because such justifications are tied to the individual’s conception of their identity.

As the authors are very quick to point out, there are some very serious problems with these closure based arguments for maintaining capital punishment.  First, there is a serious contradiction between the “highly contextual and individualized” nature of closure as an emotional state, and the objective and rational framework of the legal system which is supposed to deliver this feeling to the aggrieved.  This problem is compounded by the fact that there is often a very real difference between the way the court and covictims conceive of closure—for family members who have lost love ones, the pain of that loss frequently lingers long after the case is “closed” and the legal mechanisms for applying justice have reached their terminus.  The idea that any legal remedy could resolve their suffering functions to marginalize the voices of covictims as they go through the grieving process, and may in fact stifle the creation of social networks that are responsive to their needs (as can be seen anecdotally in the way California’s victim’s restitution fund has been allowed to approach bankruptcy as the state continues to spend millions of dollars each year on capital punishment).  The tension between the diverse and continuous process of grieving and the one size fits all approach of the justice system has the effect of shoehorning covictims into a court approved version of closure which leaves little room for alternative ways of coping with loss.  

In addition to creating problems for victims, the closure approach to capital punishment also raises significant concerns for the fairness of our justice system.  By treating trials as therapeutic tools, the emphasis on closure reverses the presumption of the accused’s innocence which is a hallmark of our legal system, and threatens to only heighten the bias which frequently plagues capital trials.  If trials are being undertaken in order to serve the particular emotional needs of family members, we are implicitly sending the signal to jurors that their primary obligation is not to dispassionately assess guilt or innocence, but is instead to actively involve themselves in victims’ healing processes, thus staking the deck against defendants before trials even begin.

Because of these concerns, there has been a growing contingent of victims who oppose execution as a means of closure.  Mowen and Schroeder’s study documents the emergence of this covictims clemency movement as a reaction to the shift in popular justification for capital punishment, while also evaluating the way newspaper coverage of capital trials seeks to minimize acknowledging this reaction.  To do this, they analyzed 119 articles from the 1992-2009 that comprised a representative cross-section of death penalty coverage.  They found that there was a statistically significant increase in covictim resistance to capital punishment which occurred at a rate of 3.262% during the period studied.  They also discovered that courts had a tendency to cite closure as an explicit justification far more frequently then covictims (who other studies have indicated report executions bring closure in only 2.7% of relevant cases).

Despite this trend of increased opposition, newspaper coverage consistently attempts to highlight victim support for the death penalty.  In their research, Mowen and Schroeder consistently found that articles which emphasized the execution-closure connection were longer and more prominently featured in the paper than their anti-death penalty counterparts.  While they were reluctant to draw overly sweeping conclusions from their data set, Mowen and Schroeder rightly observe that their findings point to a growing disjunction between the actual will of victim’s family and the popular representation of their interests.

“Not In My Name” represents an important step towards challenging conventional wisdom regarding covictims’ stance on capital punishment, and raises important questions about the practical and moral implications of using state-killing as a tool for healing.  Mowen and Schroeder have pointed the way for a research agenda which attempts to take seriously the multitude of perspectives held by victims’ families, and their call for a transformation of “victims’ families from noncontributing active participants within the current capital punishment paradigm” demands attention from all of us who are committed to ensuring that no one, be they covictim, or defendant, is “victimized at the hands of ‘justice.’”

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Justice Sotomayor's Courageous Dissent

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on April 12th, 2011

In her courageous and compelling dissent from a 5-4 decision of the United States Supreme Court reinstating the death sentence of California prisoner Scott Pinholster, Justice Sonia Sotomayor told how a jury deliberated for two days before returning its fateful penalty verdict -- after Pinholster's two trial attorneys failed to investigate his background, overlooking evidence of his traumatic brain injuries in early childhood, seizure disorders, and severe lifelong mental illness that would have made a powerful case for life.

Justice Sotomayor, along with her colleagues Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, would have affirmed a 2009 decision of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturning Pinholster's death sentence on the grounds that the failure of his attorneys to search for and find this "voluminous" mitigating evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to "effective assistance of counsel" in the penalty phase of his 1984 trial.

However, a five-justice majority led by Justice Clarence Thomas reversed the Ninth Circuit and reinstated the death sentence, holding among other things that the new evidence of the "psychotic" Pinholster's traumatic brain injury, neurological abnormalities, and severe mental illness did not raise a "reasonable probability" that if his jury had heard it they might have reached a different penalty verdict, thus "undermining" confidence in the actual verdict of death. The full text of the Court's arguments can be found here.

The case also focused on technical issues relating to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, passed by Congress to restrict the scope of federal appeals by state prisoners in capital and noncapital cases. Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, made the interpretation of these restrictions yet tighter by holding that federal courts must give full weight and deference to a state court's denial of a prisoner's constitutional claim (e.g. ineffective assistance of counsel) even if the court simply rejects a claim without stating any findings of facts or explaining its legal reasoning. The Court's holding also limited the scope of federal evidentiary hearings exploring facts not fully developed in state court that might cast additional doubt on a conviction or death sentence.

Justice Thomas was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy; Justice Samuel Alito furnished the fifth vote to reinstate Pinholster's death sentence, but wrote separately to urge the need for a broader scope for federal evidentiary hearings. Reserving judgment on Pinholster's death sentence, Justice Stephen Breyer would have remanded the case for further consideration by the Ninth Circuit, leaving that court to decide whether an evidentiary hearing might be justified under the stricter reading of the AEDPA now in effect.

Cutting to the heart of the matter, however, it was Justice Sotomayor who served as the moral and legal compass of the Court by telling the horrific story of Pinholster's brain injuries, violent abuse by his stepfather and other family members, abnormal EEG at the age of nine followed by seizure disorders, and lifelong history of serious mental illness which led to a proposal to place him in the Hope Psychiatric Institute only months before he murdered Thomas Johnson and Robert Beckett in the course of a 1982 burglary at the home of a drug dealer who was a friend of the victims.

In vivid human detail, we learn how Pinholster was run over by his mother at the age of two, and then in another car accident at the age of four or five had his head thrown through the windshield of the vehicle, suffering injuries which could explain his brain abnormalities and epileptic seizures from childhood on, as well as his evident learning disorders and psychological problems ultimately leading to an escalating pattern of violent and criminal behavior.

Together with these traumatic brain injuries went a childhood in which Pinholster and his siblings, to quote a psychiatrist who actually testified for the state, Dr. John Stalberg, had been "raised like animals, wild animals." Pinholster's stepfather had routinely beaten him -- on at least one occasion with a wooden two-by-four. The history of close family members was filled with mental illness and drug abuse as well as criminal behavior. As Sotomayor details, "Pinholster's half-sister was removed from the home as a result of a beating by his stepfather...."; and his elder brother was diagnosed as "catatonic-like" and "acutely psychotic," eventually committing suicide.

Reading these facts, one must ask, how could any reasonable court sustain a death sentence handed down by a jury in ignorance of this overwhelming mitigation, much less hold that there was no "reasonable probability" that the jury might have chosen permanent imprisonment (life without parole) if informed of the tragedy of Pinholster's entire life as well as the horror of his two murders and other crimes?

As Justice Sotomayor shows, ably commanding the Court's intricate death penalty jurisprudence developed over the last four decades while never losing sight of the human realities, proper application of recent cases would require upholding the Ninth Circuit's decision to vacate the death penalty, leaving California free either to grant Pinholster a new penalty trial where the jury can hear all the mitigating evidence, or else simply to reduce the sentence to permanent imprisonment.

As shocking as the deficiencies of Pinholster's trial lawyers, one of whom was later disbarred, perhaps even more appalling was one of the explanations offered by Justice Thomas for holding that the omitted mitigating evidence would have been unlikely to change the result: the evidence of serious "substance abuse, mental illness, and criminal problems" in Pinholster's family was "by no means clearly mitigating, as the jury might have concluded that Pinholster was simply beyond rehabilitation."

Amazingly, to justify the view that a rational jury could weigh Pinholster's tragic family background -- and presumably also his own traumatic brain injuries and resulting seizure disorders as well as his lifelong mental illness -- as factors actually tipping the scales toward death, Justice Thomas cites the case of Atkins v. Virginia (2002). There the Court likewise noted that mitigating evidence of mental retardation "can be a 'two-edged sword'" which might lead a jury to find the aggravating factor of "future dangerousness."

Whether or not Justice Thomas realized or intended it, his citation of Atkins is indeed a powerful two-edged legal sword: to avoid the risk that a jury might perversely view a defendant's intellectual disability as aggravating rather than mitigating, the Atkins Court categorically excluded the death penalty for offenders with mental retardation. And in Roper v. Simmons (2005), likewise noting a Missouri prosecutor's suggestion that the youth of a defendant who killed at age 17 was "scary" rather than "mitigating," the Court eliminated the risk of such misguided and deadly logic by categorically barring the death penalty for offenders who committed their capital crimes before reaching the age of 18.

Legal advocates have already been urging that the logic of Atkins and Simmons should be extended by barring the death penalty for all defendants with serious mental illness or organic brain damage, thus avoiding miscarriages of justice such as that documented by the Ninth Circuit and Justice Sotomayor in the case of Scott Pinholster. It is ironic that Justice Thomas, by his two-edged citation of Atkins, may have provided the most cogent argument of all in favor of barring the death penalty for the intellectually disabled.

Better yet, of course, we should categorically bar the death penalty under any circumstance.

Another Foreign Drug Company Refuses to Export Lethal Injection Drug to US

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on April 11th, 2011

Late last week yet another pharmaceutical company refused to supply the lethal injection drug sodium thiopental to prisons. After it pulled the drug from the market, Kayem Pharmaceutical, a company based in India, released a statement emphasizing its opposition to the drug's use in capital punishment: "[…] we voluntary declare that we as Indian Pharma Dealer who cherish the Ethos of Hinduism (A believer even in non-livings as the creation of God) refrain ourselves in selling this drug where the purpose is purely for Lethal Injection and its misuse" [sic].

This move creates more problems for prisons already dealing with a critically short supply of the drug. Earlier this year Hospira Inc., the last domestic supplier of sodium thiopental, ceased production to protest its role in lethal injection. Prisons then turned to overseas providers, but faced mounting legal issues with the DEA and FDA. The Texas Department of Corrections, for instance, was raided last month after it came to light that it had illegally imported its supply of sodium thiopental from Italy. The Texas DoC was not authorized to independently import a schedule III narcotic into the United States and also failed to declare the shipment to the DEA.

The Nebraska Department of Corrections has also fallen under unwanted scrutiny amid evidence that it too cut corners when it imported sodium thiopental from India. The Nebraska DoC is not authorized by the DEA to directly import drugs from foreign suppliers. One document even suggests that, in place of sodium thiopental, Nebraska instead received a shipment of thiopentone thiosol sodium– a generic version of the drug not authorized for use in executions. Furthermore, Kayem failed to gain permission from the FDA before it exported the drug to the United States.

The manufacturers’ boycott of sodium thiopental production could be a crucial step toward a de facto abolition of the death penalty in the United States. As the remaining sodium thiopental available for executions expires and is not replaced, states will need to find a suitable replacement drug that comports with the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. This process could take a great deal of time. California, for instance, has had a de facto moratorium since 2006 as the Constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol is reviewed. As states scramble to find a suitable replacement for sodium thiopental it is quite possible that the number of executions in the United States could, at least in the short term, drastically decline.

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Time On Death Row: A Word From Mike Farrell

Posted by Mike Farrell on April 7th, 2011

The following is from interview given by Death Penalty Focus President Mike Farrell.  Mike has been heavily involved in struggles to protect human rights at home and abroad for more than three decades, and in addition to his work with DPF serves as a member of the board of directors for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.  In this Q&A session, Mike sheds some light on why our system of capital punishment moves as slowly as it does, what the real social costs of that system are, and what more effective alternatives might look like.

The death penalty was held unconstitutional in 1972 in what is known as the Furman decision (Furman v. Georgia).  The court held that imposition of the death penalty at that time was “cruel and unusual” and compared it to being struck by lightning.  The justices felt that it was used in an arbitrary and capricious manner and that there were implications of racism in its application.

In 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, the death penalty was reinstated by virtue of a number of safeguards that were built into the law, the intention of which was to correct the problems found in Furman.  These safeguards included the requirement of a bifurcated trial, the first to determine guilt or innocence and the second, if guilt was determined, to decide the punishment.  In a capital case with what became known as “special circumstances,” or aggravating factors, the choice was then between life in prison with no chance of parole or death. 

Because, as the courts said, “death is different,” it required additional protections for the accused, all of which cost a great deal of money: provision of expert witnesses, requirement that two competent attorneys represent the defendant, special security, etc.  And in the case of a guilty verdict and a death sentence, the court required that a series of appeals be available to the convicted person, first through the state and then through the federal courts.

All of these special requirements add up to a huge expenditure of time and money on the part of the state and federal governments, but they are what is required to make killing a human being pass constitutional muster.

Today, the average time an individual spends on death row after being convicted ranges from approximately 12 to 20 years, depending on the state and the log-jam in the courts.  Many go much longer.

If the problem is that criminals spend too much time on death row, that is simply the way it has worked out in order for the system to meet our constitutional standards.  What the appeals process has exposed is the too-often slipshod manner by which people are sentenced to death and the hideous number of wrongful convictions that occur.  In order to speed up the process we would not only have to spend much more money, we would also run an increased risk of executing the innocent.

What those of us who oppose the death penalty in all cases believe, and I think our objections are being validated over time, is that racism remains a factor in death prosecutions; that virtually everyone given a death sentence is a poor person who couldn’t afford a proper defense; that there remains a problem with ambitious prosecutors or overworked police who aren’t as careful about the facts as fairness requires; that incompetent defense attorneys continue to feed hapless, often innocent victims into the system; that any system run by humans makes mistakes; that it is morally wrong to kill when we can keep society safe by incarcerating those who act out violently for the rest of their lives, when and if necessary; and that huge amounts of tax dollars are being wasted on a system that is truly dysfunctional.

In my view, many of those who commit murder are capable of being rehabilitated and returned to society after they have demonstrated remorse, worked to earn money that can be used to compensate victim’s family members (or a victim’s fund), and worked to improve themselves and show an ability to be a productive and law-abiding member of society.  For that reason, I believe there should be a series of graduated sentences for a capital crime and during the period of incarceration, the convicted should be given opportunities to better him or herself.  Sentences then could begin with something like a requirement of at least 25 years before being considered for parole, perhaps 40 years for others, depending on the circumstances of the crime, and that life without parole should be reserved for those so bent and broken by life’s circumstances that they cannot ever be safely released into society.

That way we would not demean ourselves by stooping to killing other human beings.  And, we would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Should Murderers Die?

Posted by Stephen F. Rohde, DPF Board Member on April 1st, 2011

In a civilized society, we should not kill to show that killing is wrong. Dennis Prager thinks that murderers should die and therefore places state killing on a higher moral plane than those of us who believe that state killing is itself immoral ("Murderers Should Die," March 18).

Prager claims that there is almost no issue "for which the gulf between people on opposite sides of an issue is as unbridgeable as on the issue of the death penalty for murderers." Yet he ignores the fact that many have bridged that gulf as the death penalty continues to become less and less popular with Americans. A July 2010 Field Poll revealed that, when asked which sentence they preferred for a first-degree murderer, 42 percent of registered voters said they preferred life without parole and only 41 percent said they preferred the death penalty.

Prager cites the Torah as his single moral compass. But the Torah, among many ancient religious texts, includes rules and prohibitions that few would subscribe to today. According to the Torah, in addition to murder, offenses that merit death include disobedience to a parent, contempt of court, blasphemy, sacrificing to another god, false prophecy, necromancy, premarital sex, bestiality and breaking the Sabbath.

"Many Jewish opponents of the death penalty point to Israel, which has disallowed capital punishment since its establishment," Prager argues, but he dismisses this important fact by claiming that "Israel was founded by Jews who took their values from the European Enlightenment, not from the Torah, and that is why they banned capital punishment in Israel."

Indeed, most Americans, including the [Founding Fathers] who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and presumably most Jews in America, also derive their values from the European Enlightenment, which over time has led to less and less support for the death penalty.

The majority of nations and Western democracies have abolished the death penalty, and the International Criminal Court has barred the use of capital punishment even for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Prager engages in the utter speculation that "more innocents die with no capital punishment than with it." If we consider life without parole the natural alternative to the death penalty, the risk to innocent people is negligible. The risk of a murderer escaping from prison and murdering again is less than a fraction of a percent. And Prager callously ignores the fact that there is overwhelming evidence in at least nine cases since 1980 that innocent men were executed in the United States.

Elie Wiesel, covering Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem (the only instance of civil execution in Israel's history), called the execution "an example not to be followed." "Society should not be the Angel of Death," he said. "We should not be servants of death. The law should celebrate, glorify, sanctify life, always life."

As between Wiesel and the value of life and Prager and the value of death, I choose life.

The writer, a constitutional lawyer, is president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and represented a man on California's death row.

This letter originally appeared in the
JEWISH JOURNAL, March 29, 2011, Letters to the Editor section.

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U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Petition by Troy Davis

Posted by Zac Stone on March 30th, 2011

After some uplifting news from Los Angeles in the case of Francisco Carrillo, freed from prison last week after faulty eyewitness testimony wrongfully put him there 20 years ago, there is distressing news from Georgia, where Troy Davis, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer in Savannah, has had his final appeal denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. And though Davis has been here before - his execution has been scheduled on three occasions, each time stayed by a judge for review - barring clemency by Georgia's Governor or Board of Pardons and Paroles, Troy Davis will soon face execution.

Convicted with no physical evidence linking him to the crime, Davis was unable to convince a federal judge that seven out of nine eyewitnesses recanting their testimony suggested doubt about his guilt. Because prosecutors lacked any physical evidence, including the murder weapon, which might link Davis to the crime, they relied entirely on the eyewitness testimony of, according to original defense lawyer Robert Barker, a "cast of characters" including "jail birds, felons, [and] twice convicted felons." This served to limit Davis' options for appeal, forcing him to try and prove that the seven eyewitnesses who recanted their testimony were now credible, and that their recantations diminished the state's case against Davis. Despite evidence of police coercion and other underhanded tactics used to obtain witness identifications, and two witnesses claiming another man confessed to the crime, it was apparently not enough to sow doubt in the mind of U.S. District Judge William T. Moore, nor the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, nor the U.S. Supreme Court, which both declined to hear Davis' challenge.

Because the Drug Enforcement Agency recently seized Georgia's supply of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic used in executions which the state acquired illegally from sources abroad, Davis' execution will likely be delayed until the DEA completes its investigation or Georgia switches to another sedative in its lethal injection protocol. Arizona, Ohio, and Texas have adopted pentobarbital.

Execution drugs aside, serious doubts still exist about Davis' guilt, and they cast a pall over his death sentence. We know the dangers of relying on eyewitness testimony, and this case rests solely on the credibility of a pair of eyewitnesses, with nary a shred of physical evidence to tie Davis to the murder. How so many learned individuals are able to convince themselves Davis is guilty without a doubt is both astounding and disheartening. We must take action to ensure that justice is fairly served and not undermined, for Troy Davis, his family, and for the victims of this crime and others.

Please help stop the execution of Troy Davis by signing this petition to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles today.

An Open Letter to Gov. Jerry Brown from the Former "Hanging Judge of Orange County"

Posted by Donald A. McCartin, Guest Blogger on March 30th, 2011

Dear Governor Brown,

Welcome back. I offer here a few thoughts for your consideration.

After you were gutsy enough to appoint me, a right-wing Republican, to the Superior Court of Orange County, I served there from 1978 to 1993, after which I sat on assignment on death cases throughout California. In all, I presided over more trials than I can possibly recount. Among those I do remember, however, were ten murder trials in which I sentenced the convicted men to die in our state's execution chamber. As a result, I became known as "the hanging judge of Orange County," an appellation that, I will confess, I accepted with some pride.

The ten were deemed guilty of horrifying crimes by their peers, and in the jurors' view as well as mine they deserved to die at the hands of the state. However, as of today, one has died of natural causes in prison and none of the others has been executed, a fact that stirs deep anger within me.

Let me explain:

I am angered by the fact that our system of laws has become so complex and convoluted that a decision I was put in the position to make, one that I then believed promised resolution for the family members of the victims of those crimes, has been made a mockery.

I have followed the development of legal thinking and understand why our nation's Supreme Court, in holding that "death is different," required that special care be taken to safeguard the rights of those accused of capital crimes, especially those sentenced to death. Such wisdom protects our society from returning to the barbarism of the past. And while I find it discomfiting and to a significant degree embarrassing that appellate courts have found fault with some of my statements, acts or decisions, I can live with the fact that their findings arise out of an attempt to ensure that the process has been scrupulously fair before such a sentence is carried out.

I can live with it and, apparently, so can the men I condemned. The first one, Rodney James Alcala, whom I sentenced to die over 30 years ago for kidnapping and killing 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, was, just last year, again sentenced to death for killing little Robin Samsoe and four other young women who, it has subsequently been determined, were his victims at around the same time.

I need not here go into the permutations of Mr. Alcala's legal journey. Behind bars since 1979, he has not harmed, nor can he harm, any other young women. That's instructive because harm has been done and that's what infuriates me. Robin Samsoe's mother has been re-victimized time and time again as the state of California has spent millions upon millions of dollars in a series of unsuccessful attempts to fulfill its promise that her daughter's murder can be resolved and she can go on with her life.

Had I known then what I know now I would have given Mr. Alcala and the others the alternative sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Had I done that, Robin's mother Marianne would have been spared the pain of 30 years of misery, wondering if her daughter's murder would ever be finally resolved. She could have dealt then and there with the fact that her daughter's killer would be shut away, never again to see a day of freedom, and gone on to put her life together. Had I done that, the State of California would not have put her through the torture of hearing after hearing, trial after trial. Had I done that, the people of California would have been spared the hideous expense of hundreds of millions of their tax dollars that were squandered in this meaningless and ultimately fruitless pursuit of death.

It makes me angry, Governor Brown, to have been made a player in a system that is so inefficient, so ineffective, so expensive and so emotionally costly to those to whom it promises peace but delivers only pain.

I watch today as you wrestle with the massive debt that is suffocating our state and hear that you don't want to "play games." But I cringe when I learn that not playing games amounts to cuts to kindergarten, cuts to universities, cuts to people with special needs and I hear no mention of the simple cut that would save hundreds of millions of dollars, countless man-hours, unimaginable court time and years of emotional torture for victim's family members waiting for that magical sense of "closure" they've been promised by prosecutors once the perpetrator has been killed by the state.

You and I know, Governor, that there is no such thing as "closure" when a loved one is taken. What family members must find is reconciliation with the reality of their loss, and that can begin the minute the perpetrator is sent to a prison he will never leave. But to ask them to endure the years of being dragged through the courts with the promise that the state will end their pain by causing the death of another is a cruel lie.

So I agree that we should no longer play games, Governor Brown. You and I are both older now, so let's stop playing the killing game. Let's use the hundreds of millions of dollars we'll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death. Let's stop asking people like me to lie to those victim's family members.

I'm told you don't have the power to end the death penalty by yourself, but you can point the way. You can have a huge financial impact on California by following the lead of Governor Ryan of Illinois and commuting the sentences of all the men and women on California's death row - all 700-plus of them - to life without parole. And you can direct the millions you save to making some of our citizens' lives brighter and more promising.

Let's stop playing games, Governor. Let's stop lying to the people; let's stop being politicians and start behaving like the grownups we've become.

With Respect,

Donald A. McCartin,

Judge, Superior Court (Ret.), Orange County

Theologian Dale Recinella Responds to Biblical Justification of Death Penalty

Posted by Dale S. Recinella, J.D., M.T.S, Guest Blogger on March 29th, 2011

My dear Christian friend, Mr. Robert Michaels:


I read your 03/25/2011 01:03:32 AM PDT post in the Vallejo Times Herald concerning the Bible and the death penalty. Thank you for your sincere and conscientious interest in the issue of the death penalty. Perhaps because of my extensive writing and speaking in the area of the American death penalty and religion, especially Christian religion, it is proper for me to address you on this subject.


You have indicated that you are of the opinion that people of biblical faith must, after all is said and done, support what is required by the Bible. I agree. For decades I supported the American death penalty. My support was based upon what I thought was in Holy Scripture. And you and I are not alone in that. The reason, I think, that over 86% of all the executions in the U.S. in the last 33 years have occurred in the Bible Belt is because good, Bible-believing people believe that the Bible requires it. That was why I supported it.


Well, I'm also a lawyer. After many years as a corporate lawyer God called me and my wife to ministry. Now, with 13 years of ministry to the families of murder victims, to men being executed, to families of the executed, and to staff at Florida's death row prison, I have had to dig back into the Scriptures much more deeply than I had before in order to find out exactly what God is expecting of us.


My conclusion is that God expects our society to punish wrongdoing-you may use the word retribution and that's a fine word by my reading of the Bible. There must be consequences for choosing to do harm to society, to people and to property. And it must be just punishment or those who are not motivated by grace will scoff at the law and run roughshod over the innocent.


That brought me to the next question, what is just punishment?


Let's say a criminal commits a crime that causes someone to be burned over half their body, or causes a person to be blinded, or to lose a limb. Does the justice required by Scripture mean that we have to take that criminal and burn half his body, or blind him or severe his limbs? We might want to-but that's not the question. The question is does God's Word require such a burning or blinding or maiming in order for the punishment to be just? Virtually all Christians agree that it does not. Time to be spent in prison is the just punishment.


So, then, what if the crime committed involves the taking of human life? Is the killing of the criminal the only just punishment allowed by Scripture? I do not think so. I think life in prison without possibility of parole is punishment that fully grants retribution for the evil done. And, you and I do not have to become killers ourselves in order to carry out that punishment.


You have looked to Paul's Epistle to the Romans 13:3-4 to confirm God's mandate for capital punishment:


"But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for (government) beareth not the sword in vain: for (government) is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." Authorized King James Version.


The two critical words here are sword and execute. If government bears the sword as God's minister to execute offenders, it sounds like a scriptural mandate ("command") for capital punishment. Is it?


There are distinctly different Greek words that translate into English as sword. RHOMPHAIA means a saber, a long and broad cutlass, a broadsword. This is the instrument used for decapitation, capital punishment by sword. As a Roman citizen, Paul had the right to be executed by broadsword and not by crucifixion. My bet is that Paul knew the Greek word for the sword used for capital punishment. This is not the word used in the Greek in Romans 13:4.


MACHAIRA, the Greek word used in Romans 13:4, means a short sword worn on the belt, a dagger. This is not the instrument used for decapitation, but was used as a metaphor for the authority of the courts to inflict punishment in general.


Also, the word execute is not in the original Greek scriptures of this verse. The word execute has been inserted by the translator into the Authorized King James Version to provide a verb so the sentence makes sense in English. The Greek original does not have this verb. The English translation uses it as a synonym for bring or inflict. Because the word "execute" is not in the original Greek but is inserted by the English translators, it appears in italics in most editions of the Authorized King James Version.


Given these two facts of the original Greek of the Scripture verses, the verse in Romans 13:4 makes complete sense in English without the death penalty.


But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for government beareth not the power of judicial punishment in vain: for it is the minister of God, a revenger to carry out wrath upon him that doeth evil.


The verse is a mandate for retributive punishment on evildoers; but it contains no mandate for the death penalty. Rather, it supports the power of legitimate government by judicial authority to impose punishment for crimes.


You also quote Genesis 9, the so-called Rule of Blood as God's mandate for capital punishment. That verse reads:


"Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." New International Version This verse is included in God's blessing of Noah and his family. Genesis 9:1-7


A quick reading of this verse without study could create the impression that the Rule of Blood is God's command that the entire world must use the death penalty; however, there are some major problems with that conclusion.


First, the text is in poetic form which was never used for biblical law.


Second, American Christians only intend to treat this as God's command for capital punishment in the case of first-degree murder. But if these verses are actually God's command to execute those who take human life, there is no basis for any limitation in the text itself. If God is commanding the use of executions in these verses, then their plain reading seems to cover all taking of human life: accidents, negligent homicide, even self-defense. To my knowledge, no Christians in America support such broad mandate for the application of the death penalty under the Rule of Blood. Yet, there is no Scriptural basis for applying it at all unless it is unlimited. There is no intellectual integrity in claiming it is God's mandate and then rewriting it to our liking.


Third, there is no rational basis to explain why the words in the Rule of Blood are God's explicit command to be followed literally, but the other portions of this set of verses, called the Noahic blessing, are not to be taken literally or treated as binding law: e.g., the prohibition on consumption of rare meat, or the statement that any animal which kills a human must be executed.


Finally, if the Rule of Blood is indeed God's command, God's perfect will, that anyone who kills another human being must be executed, God would surely apply this uniformly because God is infinitely just. Consequently, a prominent first-degree, premeditated murderer after the blessing of Noah's family but before the handing down of the Mosaic Law would have to be executed.


What does the Bible report as God's punishment for the most significant and prominent first-degree murderer during that period, under the Rule of Blood?


That person in the Bible is none other than Moses. And God deals with Moses the same way God dealt with Cain: banishment from society. Our modern term for such banishment is prison.


God seems quite consistent in the biblical record of His dealings with Cain and Moses. And He did not execute either one.


You also have used the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ as biblical support for the American death penalty. You are not alone. Many pro-death penalty people of biblical faith like to quote the following passage from the Gospel of John as biblical proof that Jesus supports the death penalty. I used to quote it for that reason as well. The scene is the trial of Jesus before Pilate:


So Pilate said to him, "Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?"


Jesus answered [him], "You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above."


The pro-death penalty biblical argument stops right there and fails to quote the rest of what Jesus said. The entire exchange reads as follows:


So Pilate said to him, "Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?"


Jesus answered [him], "You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above. For this reason the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin." John 19:10-11


This full text can hardly be claimed as Jesus' support for capital punishment. Sin is not the word used in Scripture to describe an act that is virtuous. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that Pilate's reaction was based upon what Jesus said:


Consequently, Pilate tried to release him." John 19:12


The execution of the innocent is no small issue for biblical Christians. Exodus 23:7 warns us not to be involved with the execution of the innocent. Jesus Christ warns us in the verses quoted above not to be involved in the execution of the innocent.


Yet, as noted in the U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion in Marsh v. Kansas, authored by pro-death penalty Justice Clarence Thomas, abolition of the death penalty in the U.S. is the only way to avoid the execution of the innocent. (Slip opinion at p. 17) In a concurring opinion, Justice Scalia attacks any concern about execution of the innocent. First, he implies that such a concern would in fact end the death penalty in the U.S. Then he says: "Like other human institutions, courts and juries are not perfect. One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly. That is a truism, not a revelation." (Concurring opinion, at p. 19)


Such a truism when the penalty is years in prison may not rise to the level of biblical condemnation. But as shown above, that truism is soundly condemned by Scripture when the penalty is death.


Those pro-death penalty positions of Justices Thomas and Scalia cannot be supported as biblical positions. Those are mere political positions. The Bible rails against the execution of the innocent.


True scholars of the Bible know this. On May 22, 2008, I appeared on a radio show on Inter-Faith Voices opposite Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. The moderator addressed him with the first question:


Moderator: "Just to clarify your position, do you argue that a state or a nation must have the death penalty or that it is morally permissible if it so chooses?"


Dr. Mohler responded correctly:


"… I would not say that it is absolutely mandated that a society must do this. But certainly it is permissible.…


In his next answer, Dr, Mohler, went on to qualify that permissibility:


Moderator: "So, you would see it [the death penalty] as preferable, perhaps?"


Dr. Mohler: "Yes. With all the conditions being met for the penalty to be just in its application. With all the right kind of structures for the right conducting of trial and the establishment of guilt and all the rest."


Dr. Mohler's answer was exactly correct. The problem is that with respect to the U.S. death penalty those conditions are not met, the right kind of structures do not exist, and the biblical standard of absolute certainty of guilt is not the standard for execution in any U.S. system: federal, military or state.


Mr. Michaels, my biblical studies in this area led me to actually reconstruct the death penalty in the Bible the way a lawyer would-procedural and substantive law. I identified 44 absolute legal requirements of the biblical death penalty in order to comply with the dictates of Scripture. Then, I took the American death penalty and compared it to the list. We are zero for 44!


The only possible conclusion based upon what is actually in the Bible and the Scriptural requirements for permissible use of the death penalty is that we cannot support the U.S. death penalty with the Bible. There is a death penalty in the Bible-but it has nothing to do with what we are doing in America. And we cannot use the Bible to support the American death penalty.


I would not expect you or anyone else just to take my word for it. That is why I wrote the scholarly book: The Biblical Truth about America's Death Penalty. It is available on Amazon. Please read it and then I look forward to your questions and your comments.


My dear Christian friend, God bless you, protect you and keep you strong.


Yours faithfully,


Dale S. Recinella, J.D., M.T.S.
Catholic Lay Chaplain
Florida Death Row


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The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony

Posted by Zac Stone on March 22nd, 2011
Franky Carrillo, celebrating upon his release from prison.

A man who served 20 years in a California prison for a drive-by killing he did not commit was released last week after eyewitnesses recanted their testimony and a judge overturned his conviction. The case of Francisco Carrillo highlights the deleterious effects eyewitness testimony can have on a defendant's chance of receiving justice. Though jurors tend to weigh eyewitness testimony heavily, more wrongful convictions are caused by misidentification by eyewitnesses than by all other factors combined.

In 1991, Scott Turner was a teenager and a member of the Neighborhood Crips gang. When faced with a "six-pack" of photos from the police after witnessing his friend's father shot dead in front of him, Turner identified rival gang member Francisco "Franky" Carrillo as the perpetrator. It was not until six months later that the other five teenaged boys who witnessed the crime were asked to identify the man, well after Turner had shared with his cohort which photo he selected. Dameon Sarpy, the victim's son, as well as Turner and three of the four other witnesses recanted earlier testimony in which they had all accused Carrillo with varying degrees of certainty.

The circumstances of Carrillo's case exemplify many of the issues that surround prosecutors relying heavily on eyewitness testimony. In what are considered the "system variables" affecting identification (those the criminal justice system can control), police procedures can and do contribute to misidentification. Law enforcement agencies frequently ask eyewitnesses to identify perpetrators from a six-pack, or six mug shots grouped on a page; witnesses often wrongly assume the perpetrator must be among the six options (not always because of instructions they may or may not receive), so many witnesses thrust into this situation engage in "relative judgment," in which they pick the individual that most closely resembles their memory of the perpetrator. This effect is exaggerated when police employ the "show-up," by presenting a witness with a suspect they've detained, sometimes in shackles surrounded by officers or in the backseat of a squad car. Law enforcement organizations argue that the show-up enables them to quickly release a suspect if he is not involved, but it is a natural inclination for a witness to assume guilt in such a situation, whether the suspect is a known gang member, a star athlete, or their neighbor. Not necessarily out of malice, but subconsciously or in an effort to close a case, law enforcement officials can also offer witnesses verbal suggestions or non-verbal cues that affect their memory of the event and perpetrator.

Witnesses have been known to change their description of a perpetrator after learning about a particular suspect, or to offer hesitant identifications from lineups only to assert certainty in court. The jury deadlocked in Carrillo's first trial, when Dameon Sarpy testified that he was "pretty sure" Carrillo was the shooter. Sarpy testified with confidence in Carrillo's next trial, which resulted in his conviction and two life sentences. Two decades later, Sarpy admitted that Scott Turner had told him whom to select, and Turner apologized in court and asked for Carrillo's forgiveness. After the recantations and a dramatic reenactment of the crime on a dark street in Lynwood, Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo was able to determine Carrillo's conviction had been wrongfully handed down.

Memory distortion in eyewitnesses can be caused by innumerable factors, however, not limited to those system variables. Included among the "estimator variables" (those outside the control of the criminal justice system) are distractions like a gun (called weapon focus) or inclement weather, lighting and location of the crime, race (particularly when a witness is of a different race than the assailant), and the stress felt during a crime, especially when the threat of violence is high. It is safe to say memories don't exist in isolation, but rather among other memories and thoughts and images that can interfere with one another. Memory is far from sacrosanct, yet juries give overwhelming preponderance to eyewitness testimony, which then results in wrongful convictions, just like Carrillo's.

Studies of inmates exonerated by DNA evidence performed by the Innocence Project have found that a full three quarters of post-conviction exonerations involve mistaken eyewitness identification testimony. As for its role in capital punishment, the Center on Wrongful Convictions studied eyewitness testimony in the cases of 86 defendants sentenced to death, but later exonerated, and found that misidentification played a major role in convicting more than half of them, and that eyewitness testimony was indeed the only evidence used against 38 percent of the defendants.

Certain safeguards can and should be put in place to ensure, for instance, that the composition of a lineup reflects the witness' description of a perpetrator, and does not allow the suspect to noticeably stand out. Officers administering photo and live lineups should be unaware of the suspect's identity - misidentification is drastically reduced when tests are administered blind, so to speak. Witnesses ought to be instructed thoroughly and made aware that the perpetrator may not be included among the lineup. Additionally, presenting suspects sequentially, and not all at once, has been shown to counteract the relative judgment witnesses engage in when faced with a select group of possible suspects. After identification, a witness should state their level of confidence in choosing one suspect, and the entire proceedings ought to be recorded from beginning to end, so the fallibility of memory may play a less significant role beyond the initial identification. By employing these precautions, we may slightly correct for our impressionable memories and keep more innocent people from landing in prison or dying at the hands of the state.

Moments after being released from a Los Angeles jail on March 16th, Franky Carrillo thanked his legal team (full disclosure: Ellen Eggers, all-star attorney with the state public defender's office, is on the DPF board of directors), and offered this understated, but apt summation, "It's been a long journey. Initially it started with an injustice, but finally justice has prevailed, and I'm excited," presumably to start his life after our justice system took it away so callously.

Innocent people who find themselves accused of crimes rarely expect prison time and generally trust in the system to mete out justice fairly, but those without a crack legal team and a sympathetic judge, like Carrillo 20 years ago, may very well find it difficult overcoming long entrenched flaws in our justice system.

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Georgia Department of Corrections Illegally Imports Lethal Injection Drug

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

Earlier this week we noted the mounting difficulty states are having procuring lethal injection drugs after pharmaceutical companies began deliberately pulling their products off the market to ensure they wouldn’t be used in executions. For Georgia this crisis escalated today when their cache of lethal injection drugs was raided by the DEA after allegations came to light that the Department of Corrections was possibly not in compliance with regulatory laws when it imported its shipment of the sedative thiopental.

Given the dwindling supply of the drug in response to the de facto drug company boycott, the Department of Corrections had to take extraordinary measures to procure it – contacting a foreign company directly to cut a deal. The Department wired the company $340.41 in exchange for 50 vials of the sedative, but neither party declared the shipment to the DEA, possibly violating the Federal Controlled Substance Act.

In a macabre way, it is almost comical how far out of our way we are willing to go to kill our inmates. Should we pause to reconsider the death penalty when nearly every drug company – the only entities that could stand to profit from an execution – cease producing thiopental in protest of capital punishment? Should we reconsider the death penalty after innocent inmates are exonerated? Or perhaps when the alternative punishment of life without parole achieves the same goals at a fraction the cost? On a certain level it is curious that, to some, the illegal importation of a schedule III drug from another country makes more sense than abolition.

An Open Letter to Governor Jerry Brown: Smart on Crime Solutions to the Budget

Posted by on March 16th, 2011

Originally appeared in The Los Angeles Sentinel on March 11, 2011

Dear Governor Jerry Brown,

In 1992, several key organizers in the Watts Community, including myself, organized a peace treaty between warring gangs in Los Angeles that changed the quality of life in our community. You are no stranger to our work in Watts. When Dwayne Holmes, an anti-violence activist from the Imperial Court Housing Projects, was wrongly accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit, you came out of retirement and advocated for his release. As a result, we developed a deep, personal relationship.

In the summer of 1996, my family and I spent several days at your home in Jack London Square. My son Terrell was 11 years old then. I remember him climbing into your loft and listening to you talk about the importance of public safety on your "We the People" radio show. He never forgot that. When we visited the State Capitol for the first time, he urged me to take him to see your picture in the Gallery of Governors. He said to me, "Dad, he's one of the good guys. If he was Governor now, he would help you stop the killing." I said, "Yes he would, son."

On January 10th, 2004, my world changed when Terrell, home from his first semester at Humboldt State University, was murdered. Even though he had never been involved with a gang, he became a victim of the random gang violence prevalent in our community.

The same year my son was murdered, the Attorney General's office released its annual report, Homicides in California. The report presented a disturbing picture of violence among African Americans in Los Angeles County. The African American homicide rate was more than twelve times that of whites and more than three times that of Hispanics. Though African Americans only represented 6.7 percent of the population, they comprised an alarming 32.1 percent of homicide victims in California. Los Angeles County had the second highest murder rate in California. Similar statistics are found in the homicide reports released during your tenure as Attorney General.

Today, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Los Angeles has seen a decrease in gang violence and homicide over the past twenty years due to the continued efforts of gang intervention and prevention workers, but we need more programs and services for at-risk youth. Unfortunately, social services like these are usually among the first services thrown on the chopping block during budget crises.

Before releasing your recent budget proposal, you warned that deep cuts to social services would be made across the board. You also promised that everything would be on the table. However, one particular money pit has remained not just unscathed, but also unexamined: the death penalty.

Each year, the death penalty costs California taxpayers $126 million more than it would cost if all of those currently on death row were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. On top of that, taxpayers will spend $400 million if construction of a colossal new death row housing facility moves forward. All together, we will waste $1 billion over the next five years on the death penalty.

When I imagine how to keep my surviving children and grandchildren safe, the death penalty does not come to mind. Violence prevention, education, mental healthcare, and other social services are what make a real difference in our communities. Let's protect our youth from random violence, especially African Americans growing up in urban war zones, by putting our state's limited resources to better use. Our state budget must reflect our communities' values and needs.

We all know that times are tough and difficult choices need to be made. Governor, please honor Terrell. Prove you're still one of the good guys. Cut California's death penalty.

# # #

Aqeela Sherrills is one of the original organizers of the Watts "gang truce" in 1992 and is currently the Southern California Outreach coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

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Inmate Executed with Animal Drug

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on March 14th, 2011

Yesterday Ohio became the first state in history to execute a man using a drug normally reserved for animal euthanasia. Before this execution, states had traditionally employed a three injection cocktail that would anesthetize the inmate, stop his breathing, and then stop his heart. In January, however, the company that produced one of those crucial drugs announced it would cease distribution. Hospira, the drug manufacturer, publicly stated that it did not condone capital punishment, and that since it was impossible to ensure that its drugs would not be used in executions, it was pulling its product off the market entirely.

Ohio then sought alternatives, eventually deciding to abandon the three drug approach in favor of a single lethal dose of the barbiturate pentobarbital. This move, however, created a row with that drug’s manufacturer, H. Lundbeck: “It’s against everything we stand for,” a company spokesman said, “we invest and develop medicine with the aim of alleviating people’s burden. This is the direct opposite of that.”

The opposition to Baston’s execution didn’t stop there. Peter Mah, the son of Baston’s victim, publicly voiced his family’s opposition to the execution and capital punishment in general. Mah said that Baston’s execution will not bring back his father and will not alleviate his family’s suffering. The Mah family went even further, backing up their words with a formal request to the Ohio Parole Board that Baston’s sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. Their request was unanimously denied.

In death penalty cases at least someone is supposed to benefit from the execution. Here, however, it appears as though not a single individual came out ahead. The drug companies vehemently opposed the use of their products, the victim’s family actively tried to stop the execution, and the Bastons eventually lost a family member. Society would have been equally shielded from any future dangerousness if Baston had instead been sentenced to life without parole. From what I can tell, Ohio just spent millions of dollars to go out of its way to do something with no marginal benefit that no one wanted to do in the first place.

In the Wake of Victory, Defeat

Posted by Margo Schulter on March 11th, 2011

Having celebrated the great victory for human rights in Illinois, we must now mourn and protest the execution in Ohio of Johnnie Baston, carried out despite the generous and courageous request for clemency by the family of his victim, Chong-Hoon Mah.

Much news coverage is focusing on the novel pharmacology of this state killing: a single-drug protocol using sodium pentobarbital, often favored as an agent in animal euthanasia. While the question of how best and most "humanely" to cold-bloodedly kill a subdued prisoner in fact highlights that there is no right way to do the wrong thing, let's focus instead on the people whom Illinois Governor Pat Quinn embraced so movingly in his statement yesterday, but whom the Ohio Parole Board and Governor John Kasich disregarded in their lethal decision: the victim's family.

Chong Hoon-Mah, a South Korean journalist who immigrated to the United States and became the owner of a wig store in Toledo, Ohio, was brutally murdered during an armed robbery of his store in 1994. His death by a bullet to the head at point-blank range was described as an "execution-style murder."

But his son, Peter Mah of Chicago, and other members of his family didn't want the added tragedy of a new premeditated killing: that of the convicted killer, Johnnie Baston. As Mah explained:

"The death of Johnnie Baston isn't going to do anything that's going to bring back our father, give us any closure or gratification."

Peter Mah accordingly signed an affidavit as a representative of his family asking that Baston's death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. At the clemency hearing this February, Ohio prosecutor Mary Sue Barone, who helped convict Baston of the crime in 1995, spoke on behalf of the Mah family:

"I have the utmost respect for anybody who could be so magnanimous and big-hearted and full of faith to rise above what the popular faith would be: Go get 'em, an eye for an eye."

In fact, when members of the public are invited in scientific polls to pause and consider the alternative, the "popular faith" favors permanent imprisonment or life without parole rather than execution, and overwhelmingly so when life without parole is coupled with restitution to the victim's family and society.

As Peter Mah explained earlier this year, he and his family are focused on healing:

"We just try to go on as normally as possible. We discuss this issue every once in a while, but we don't want it to take over our lives again. It seems that it's out of our hands so there's really nothing that we can do now."

These words eloquently express the position of many family members of murder victims against the death penalty who may feel powerless to halt the machinery of state-sponsored homicide.

However, one detail that gives cause for hope and renewed resistance is that Peter Mah is a resident of Chicago's Lincoln Park, where Governor Quinn's historic bill-signing ceremony yesterday has liberated Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, from the specter of more senseless state killings. Together, we are not powerless: can Ohio, and California, be far behind?

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Illinois Says No to Capital Punishment

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

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill today which made his state the 16th to abolish its death penalty (Take action to thank him now).  The bipartisan bill, which passed the state legislature in January, commutes the sentences of Illinois’ 15 death row inmates to life without parole, and reallocates the funding previously slotted for capital defense to law enforcement training and increased restitution for victims’ families.  

Quinn’s decision is the culmination of years of public debate that has been raging since at least 2000 when then Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions.  For Governor Ryan, the state’s system looked increasingly broken, and the probability that innocents would be executed was too great to keep moving forward with capital punishment absent serious modifications. In the following eleven years, the state created two study commissions and attempted to implement multiple reforms to resolve these concerns, but found that such efforts were both ineffective and too costly.  Governor Quinn’s decision marks an awareness of the diminishing returns intrinsic to the already extremely expensive system, as attempts to make capital punishment ‘fair’ were always going to be more costly and less effective than abolition.  As Quinn put it, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.”  He went on to note that in a world of limited resources, it was wiser policy to take “the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system [and spend them] on preventing crime and assisting victims’ families in overcoming their pain and grief.”

Quinn did not make this decision lightly, as shown by the two-month wait between the bill’s passage and his signing it into law.  He carefully considered arguments from supporters and opponents, taking a particularly hard look at the feelings of the family members of murder victims.  In his statement, the Governor acknowledged the unimaginable heartache that accompanies losing a loved one and made clear that he understood and could not blame families for desiring retribution.  His decision to sign the bill, however, was motivated by numerous conversations with families who felt that the death penalty only prolonged their pain and suffering.  By ensuring that murderers are locked away for life, Illinois’ policy will help victims avoid years of painful hearings while also providing the state with the funding necessary to prevent similar crimes before they happen.

Illinois decision to abolish should be understood as part of a national trend away from capital punishment, as it is the fourth state in as many years to end its death penalty.  New Jersey and New York both removed all their prisoners from death row as of 2007, with New Mexico following suit two years later.  Today finds the fewest number of states’ practicing capital punishment since its reinstatement in 1978, and it appears as though the number could drop even lower as several other states are currently considering abolition with bills in various stages of debate in Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, and Washington.  

Governor Quinn’s decision should provide inspiration for death penalty opponents nation-wide, as his actions show that there is nothing inevitable about capital punishment.  As concerns over the cost and fairness of the death penalty rise, public opinion has swung increasingly against it, suggesting that a post-death penalty America may soon be a reality.  Illinois is not the first or last step in the process, but it is an important one nonetheless, as each victory adds momentum to the push for more effective alternatives to capital punishment.

The Skinner Decision

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on March 9th, 2011

Earlier this week a US Supreme Court decision allowed a death row inmate to sue to gain access to DNA evidence that could prove his innocence. Hank Skinner, the condemned man, was stuck in a legal no man’s land between the two avenues generally used in such cases. While Mr. Skinner initially tried employing a federal civil rights law known as Section 1983, the lower Courts ruled that he should have instead filed a petition for habeas corpus. Habeas corpus, however, would not have been appropriate in this case either, as inmates file habeas petitions when they seek “immediate or speedier release from confinement.” Mr. Skinner, however, was simply asking for access to evidence that could prove his innocence.

Skinner was, in essence, left with no legal remedy to his situation. The Court’s decision fixed this problem by permitting Skinner to file his suit in court under Section 1983. In her opinion, Justice Ginsberg noted that the decision does not necessarily imply that Skinner should win his lawsuit, simply that he has a right to file one. This case exposes an unsettling gap in our justice system’s prosecution of capital murder cases. In his 1972 opinion for Furman v. Georgia, Justice Stewart noted that the death penalty differs from all other forms of punishment “not in degree, but in kind.” With this concession that “death is different,” the Court called for a heightened level of scrutiny and due diligence in capital cases.

In Mr. Skinner’s case, the prosecutor argued that the DNA testing would impose “unacceptable burdens” on the government and victims, and that “no item of evidence exists that would conclusively prove that Skinner did not commit the murder.” This curious wording flirts with the implication that the burden of proof rests with the defendant rather than the prosecutor. By giving Skinner the opportunity to argue his case, the Supreme Court has taken a crucial step toward ensuring that Justice Stewart’s standard is indeed adhered to. Given Skinner’s close call, however, I wonder if each of the 3,000+ inmates currently on death row in the United States has been given this satisfactory level of heightened scrutiny in their legal proceedings.

Gender Bias and the Death Penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on March 2nd, 2011

In an interesting new study, University of San Francisco Law School Professor Steven Shatz and New York Civil Liberties Union Attorney Naomi Shatz explore the relationship between gender and California's death penalty. While much scholarly attention has been devoted to the way that racial and class dynamics influence which crimes and criminals garner capital trials, similar analysis regarding the gender of victims and defendants is relatively scarce. In attempt to explain the gender disparities in capital cases, the Shatzes examine the "chivalric norms" embedded in the criminal justice system. Using new data collected from Californian first degree murder trials, their article, Chivalry Is Not Dead, looks at the way ideas about women's roles in society influence when juries and prosecutors decide the death penalty is a necessary remedy and then asks important questions about the constitutional ramifications of this "chivalry effect."

The Shatzes describe chivalry as the cultural norms and procedures which governed the behavior of knights in medieval Europe. These codes were meant to provide knights with the standards by which they could regulate their use of violence, limiting its expression to only those instances in which it was necessary to preserve honor and other knightly virtues. Central to these chivalric norms was a particular, gendered, relationship between the autonomous knight and the frequently agency-less maiden who was the object of his protection and for whose sake he could legitimately kill. There were no female knights; in fact, the prevailing social norms afforded women a role equivalent to that of a very valuable piece of property which, while it had to be defended at all cost, could also be used by the knight in whatever manner he saw fit. Chivalric codes saw women as lacking the physical, moral and intellectual fortitude to act as their own guardians, which, in turn, necessitated their control and management at the hands of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. There was also an important class element to these codes, as they only governed interactions between members of the knightly class-their social inferiors were not thought capable of harboring chivalric virtues, and thus did not deserve to benefit from them. The result was that chivalry was meant to protect only a certain type of woman, the "lady," who "embodied ideals and stereotypes of womanhood and femininity."

Chivalry did not die with the rise of the modern state, but instead was incorporated into the legal and social apparatuses of these new democracies, including our own. A particularly harrowing example can be found in the all too common lynching of black men who threatened the honor of white women in the post-reconstruction South. These values were also reflected in legal doctrine as seen in the Supreme Court's repeated finding that the exclusion of women from social life, be it legal practice (Bradwell v. State) or jury duty (Hoyt v. Florida), was constitutionally permissible given the state's justifiable interest in protecting women's functions as mothers and homemakers.

The tide began to turn in the 1970s, when feminist critics successfully challenged such restrictions on equal protection and Title VII grounds. While progress is being, and continues to be, made, chivalric norms are still very much alive in American jurisprudence, especially as regards our criminal justice system. The Shatzes highlight their presence in laws which govern justifiable homicide, noting that self-defense and crime of passion statutes have their historical roots in laws which permitted honor killings, and that the subject who defends himself or acts out of passion is implicitly assumed to be a male one who has both the physical and social ability to exercise violence in this way. They also locate these norms in rape laws which only punish certain types of rapes, targeting dangerous strangers who threaten women's virtue, while making it much harder to prosecute similar crimes committed by acquaintances or husbands.

The relationship between gender and the death penalty has generally been discussed in terms of the relative infrequency with which female defendants receive death sentences. The chivalry hypothesis advanced by the Shatzes helps explain this discrepancy, as the tendency to view women as less responsible for their actions causes legal decision-makers to want to protect female defendants from the full force of the law. The hypothesis would also suggest that crimes against women would be more likely to result in death sentences as these murders represent attempts to defile the pristine womanhood which is one of society's most valuable resources.

To test their predictions, the Shatzes analyze data from 1299 cases of defendants convicted of first-degree murder in California from 2003 to 2005. California provides a particularly interesting test case, as the wide latitude prosecutors and juries are afforded to decide when to impose a death sentence allows us to look at the effects of cultural norms on decision-making in a way which is not possible in states with stricter guidelines. In roughly 85% of the studied cases, the defendant was factually death-eligible given the relatively wide range of special circumstances that California law recognizes as justifying the death penalty. Of that 85%, 5.5% of defendants received death sentences.

As predicted, women were rarely seen in that 5.5 %. Of the 51 women defendants in the sample, only one received a death sentence, and her crime, poisoning her husband, violated the chivalric codes which emphasize equal combat between equal adversaries. While this result might be too small to generalize, when synthesized with other studies, the Shatzes found that only 1.2% of California death sentences went to women defendants even though they comprised 5.5% of the death-eligible population. Moreover, those women who were sentenced to death were generally from society's margins and otherwise broke with the conventional definitions of womanhood.

Even more striking was the way the victim's gender affected the likelihood of the death penalty's imposition. In single-victim cases where the victim was female, the defendant was seven times more likely to receive a death sentence then if the victim was male. This finding was consistent with results from other, earlier, studies. The disparity persisted even when rape-murders, which are unusually likely to result in death sentences (and have primarily female victims), and gang murders, which have unusually low death-sentence rates (and have primarily male victims), were excluded from the analysis. The analysis also showed that this tendency to sentence the killers of women to death did not extend to instances of domestic violence where the percentage of death sentences was below the average for single-victim murders. Taken together, the study shows that the killers of women are more likely to be executed, and that this difference is too large to be explained simply by other distinctions in the types of murders which take female victims versus those that do not.

The Shatzes conclude by noting that the way we impose the death penalty is a product of social mores which reinforce a view of women as both less responsible for their actions and less capable of defending themselves. The finding flies in the face of the post-Fuhrman promise that the death penalty would be applied in a rational and non-arbitrary way, and in fact suggests new equal protection concerns which face those accused with capital crimes. While the essay only hints at what new legal strategies their findings make available to death penalty opponents, the Shatzes' work provides valuable insight into the dynamics which characterize the way the death penalty is actually implemented. Their research not only helps to build bridges between feminist legal scholars and anti-death penalty advocates, but also holds up a mirror to the way the death penalty reflects and magnifies societal biases. It is only by becoming conscience of these effects that we can begin to combat them, and in this way Chivalry Is Not Dead makes an invaluable contribution.

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Oklahoma: State-sponsored murder-suicide repeats itself

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on February 24th, 2011

For the mass media, Oklahoma's December 16 execution of John David Duty was mainly notable for marking the first use of sodium pentobarbital, a drug often used in animal euthanasia, for the judicial homicide of a human being. The scarcity of the traditional execution drug sodium thiopental that led to this substitution is indeed newsworthy as it reflects the growing unwillingness of pharmaceutical firms and medical professionals to participate in executions, as well as the determination of abolitionist countries such as the United Kingdom and Italy to prevent the export or manufacture of such drugs for the purpose of state-sponsored killing.

However, the case of John David Duty is even more noteworthy because, like the case of Oklahoma prisoner James D. French who was executed in 1966, it is a textbook example of "suicide by execution," where a person commits murder in order to be executed. Far from "deterring" such murders, the prospect of suicide through state execution provides the main motive for the crime.

James French, the only prisoner executed in the US in 1966, had been convicted in 1958 of murdering a motorist, a crime motivated by a desire for suicide through execution, but received a life sentence instead. Then, on October 17, 1961, he strangled his cellmate Eddie Lee Shelton in order to secure his own death via Oklahoma's electric chair.

An interesting aspect of the case was the involvement of Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a psychiatrist at the University of Oklahoma Medical School who testified for the defense on the issue of French's possible insanity. This experience and others led West to become an eloquent opponent of the death penalty, pointing especially to the
murder-suicide syndrome and other brutalizing effects of state killing which actually serve to incite rather than deter murders.

Professor Katherine van Wormer at the University of Northern Iowa, like the late Dr. West, has found murder-suicide through execution to be a powerful argument against the death penalty. Indeed, there may be no sharp line between the indifference of many serial killers toward their own lives and those of their victims.
In fact, Dr. van Wormer's research indicates that the quest for suicide-by-execution which motivates killers such as French and Duty is often a solution to their own, failed attempts at suicide.

Like French, John David Duty was serving a life sentence, though his crime was not murder, but instead was a brutal combination of armed robbery, kidnapping, first degree rape, and shooting with intent to kill. Seeking an escape from serving his full sentence, Duty strangled his cellmate, Curtis Wise on December 13, 2001. He subsequently pled guilty to first degree murder, and requested the death penalty, waiving any presentation by his attorney of mitigating factors which might call for a sentence of life without parole.

While the prosecutor and courts of Oklahoma seemed quite ready to grant Duty his death wish, a powerful voice for life was the victim's mother, Mary Wise, who testified in the penalty phase for permanent imprisonment. Ms. Wise, like many families of murder victims, showed great courage in opposing the death penalty while seeking a higher justice for her son through Duty's proper punishment:

"I don't believe he ought to have a choice. I think he ought to sit in that cell and face those four walls and think about what he did for the rest of his natural-born life. And I hope and pray to God that you live to be 110 years old, because that's how long I want you to think about what you did."

Even the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, in affirming what the trial judge termed a "textbook case for the death penalty," recognized that the official machinery of death was evidently being used as a tool for murder-suicide:

"Duty is a long time prison resident who sees death as a better alternative to life without parole. The killing of his cellmate was a tool for his desire to die. Although it seems that Duty is using the state to assist him in suicide, the death penalty is clearly indicated in this case despite Duty's personal wishes."

In fact, by becoming a partner to Duty's murder-suicide pact, the State of Oklahoma not only granted this killer his wish and provided an ongoing incentive to kill for prisoners or others who may wish to follow in the footsteps of French and Duty, but has also disregarded the wisdom of the victim's mother.
In doing so, Oklahoma has brought itself down to Duty's murderous level, providing us with a brutalizing demonstration of how violence begets violence.

The Duty case demonstrates the necessity of adopting permanent imprisonment as society's ultimate sanction. This would at once render suicide-through-execution obsolete as a motive for murder, while at the same time it would allow us to spend our resources making our streets and prisons more safe and secure, as well as offering more adequate assistance to families of murder victims like the courageous Mary Wise.

Life Without Parole: The Soft Option?

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on February 24th, 2011

On February 8t of this year, 36 year-old Larry Countee received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in Chicago's Cook County Court. Countee earned this punishment for the terrible murders of his mother, grandmother and uncle and the attempted murder of his sister, all committed during his 2006 burglary of their family home.

In delivering this sentence, presiding Judge Marcus Salone commented that life in prison was harsher than execution, noting that "I have visited the penitentiary, and I would rather die than spend the rest of my life there…Mr. Countee is a young man who will for the balance of his life spend every day knowing exactly what he did". Two days later, Countee began this final chapter in his life at Crest Hill Illinois's Stateville Correctional Center.

While there are those who would argue that Countee should have received a death sentence, I believe that Judge Salone made the right decision. To see why this is, we should look at the sentence's impact on the individuals affected by it.

We should first consider Countee's victims: his teenage sister, aunt and the rest of his family. They have all suffered immensely, their "lives … shattered by the most horrific crime imaginable: Our entire family … dead." In the four years since the crime was committed, the family has had to struggle daily with the cases' lack of resolution. While nothing can restore their family and wipe away their pain, the family is now afforded the opportunity to begin moving on with their lives. Had Countee been sentenced to death, they would have been subjected to years of appeals and press attention that would reopen these old wounds, and ultimately would have had to face the traumatic execution of a man who is still a member of their family. Countee's life sentence allows them to go on without the shadow of appeals and execution hanging over their heads while still affording them the knowledge that this murderer will spend the rest of his life in the ignominy of a prison cell.

We should also consider the positions of all those people who are involved in executions, duty bound to take the life of another human being regardless of their personal beliefs. Even guards who support the death penalty mention the great stress they experience while participating in executions, and there are many prison chaplains, like Rev. Caroll Pickett, and wardens like Ron McAndrew, who have come to deeply regret the part they have played in this cruel charade. This pain that accompanies executing another human is enormous, and I believe no one should be put in this position. As 21st century citizens, we have socially and psychologically progressed beyond the rough justice of the past, when men like the United Kingdom's last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, took pride in carrying out their jobs with maximum efficiency. And, even then, it seems hard to believe that Pierrepoint and his ilk were not haunted in their later years by the faces of those they had killed. Why should all these people have to bear the brunt of one man's crime, especially when the best evidence suggests their actions have no real effect on preventing similar crimes in the future?

We should finally consider the fate of the convicted himself, and ask what future awaits Larry Countee. Death penalty proponents are eager to paint life without parole as being fairly cushy, with inmates living at the expense of the state, provided with adequate food, clothing, and, often, even television and a chance to exercise. Put like this, the punishment appears soft, even comfortable.

This account quickly losses its plausibility if one does even cursory research into the living conditions of death row inmates, who are frequently "warehoused" in isolation for the rest of their lives. In Illinois, where Countee will live out his sentence, the punishment means living in endless noise, sharing a cell intended for one inmate. An Illinois prisoner I correspond with described this stark reality, "I feel as if I'm in a coffin. There is no room to move around." There is no freedom for lifers: the sentence means you will never be able to have control over doors and windows, never have personal privacy (even when it comes to using the bathroom), and you will be the victim of body searches whenever you move any distance from your cell, which would also be liable to be searched in your absence. It is also a stretch to call prison food adequate, as you will be fed just enough to keep you alive, ensuring you are regularly hungry. Medical treatment is similarly scant: treatment is bare bones at best, and you no control over it, even when you the funds to pay for more.

There will be little quality of life for Mr. Countee who will never be allowed to take a walk or see the natural world. He will never have free communication with the outside world as phone and visiting opportunities are strictly limited, and computer access is prohibited. He will not be allowed to handle money. He will live in a noise-filled, cramped, and violent world of rules and regulations, having to rely on others for his every need. He has lost his freedom to live his life as he would and he will never have it again. I think this is as harsh a punishment as is imaginable in a civilized society.

One opportunity this harsh world does provide Mr. Countee is that of personal reflection-he will suffer every day for his terrible actions, and he will have all the time in the world to try to come to terms with what he did. This will take all his will power and will in no way be made easy for him, but the possibility for personal growth and reform does exist. In my ideal world this opportunity would be made more available to more inmates. My research has led me to a program in an Alabama prison which helps inmates do this type of soul-searching, and I believe the corrections system would do well to actively follow this model. To offer such opportunities would not cost Illinois any more than the cost of one death penalty trial, and the personal transformation which is its potential payoff is well worth it. After all, isn't this the ultimate goal of punishment--to make those we punish better citizens, even if they never leave the prison?

As Illinois's Governor Quinn debates over whether or not to sign the bill to abolish the death penalty that currently sits on his desk, I hope he takes into account all the perspectives I have discussed. By signing this bill, and ending capital punishment in Illinois, the Governor would not be letting inmates off easy. Instead, he would be forcing them to do the hard work of living with their crimes, while at the same time freeing up the time and money necessary to prevent violent crimes before they happen, and to more effectively deter them after they have been committed.

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Thiopental Drama May Delay Executions

Posted by Zac Stone on February 23rd, 2011
Would you buy so much as gauze from this driving school/pharmacy?

A quarter of the United States’ attorneys general, seven Democrats and six Republicans hailing largely from western and southern states, have asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for assistance from the Department of Justice in procuring sodium thiopental, the anesthetic most commonly used in executions.

Death penalty retentionist states have had trouble obtaining the drug since the sole U.S. manufacturer of thiopental stopped producing it and abolitionist European countries have made exporting it for executions nearly impossible.

The attorneys general asked Holder for help in “either identifying an appropriate source for sodium thiopental or making supplies held by the Federal Government available to the States.”

Recently two prisoners from Georgia and one from Arizona were put to death using thiopental purchased last year through a dingy, questionable pharmaceutical wholesaler in London by the name of Dream Pharma. It was reported that all three men – Emmanuel Hammond, Brandon Rhode, and Jeffrey Landrigan – were visibly conscious during their executions, having opened their eyes minutes after being injected with the defective anesthetic, and presumably experienced excruciating pain while pancuronium bromide was used to paralyze them and potassium chloride induced cardiac arrest. This aberration of justice amounts to torture and is most certainly in opposition to the Eight Amendment to the Constitution, which is supposed to protect prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment.

As reported here earlier, attorneys in the U.S. are suing the FDA for allowing the drug into the country without review; across the pond, Reprieve, an international death penalty abolition organization, has filed a legal challenge against the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). In its court action, Reprieve seeks to recall the thiopental supplied by Dream Pharma, which, if successful, would prevent U.S. corrections officials from unwittingly torturing condemned inmates as they did in Georgia and Arizona, by effectively halting executions in the states that purchased the ineffective drug from the one-man pharmaceutical supplier, including California, which bought enough degraded thiopental to botch over 85 executions.

An anesthesiologist at Columbia hospital in New York and expert witness in Reprieve’s lawsuit against the MHRA, Dr. Mark Heath, describes the recent executions in Georgia and Arizona as being “highly atypical…based on my studies of lethal injection, it is very unusual and surprising for a prisoner’s eyes to remain open after the efficacious administration of thiopental.” Heath makes clear that using defective sodium thiopental ensures an agonizing death for prisoners, who endure “asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium.”

While people will continue to debate the death penalty’s merits for many years, there is no question that subjecting prisoners to this brand of torture goes against an array of international human rights treaties and those rights protecting against cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed to all Americans by the U.S. Constitution. To use one more gram of these tainted thiopental stocks from overseas would call into question states’ abilities to ensure that justice can ever be fairly and reliably served.

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Report Makes Important Recommendations on Fixing a "Broken System"

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on February 23rd, 2011

This month marked the release of an important new report, Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Administration and Congress, which provides comprehensive analysis of the federal criminal justice system, and lays out extensive recommendations for reform. Coordinated by the non-partisan advocacy group the Constitution Project, the report brings together a diverse coalition of over 40 criminal justice organizations who apply their expertise to advising the Obama administration and the new congress on how to tackle the difficult problems facing our justice system. The report includes a thoroughly researched inquiry into the death penalty and provides insight into how to remedy the lack of constitutional safeguards which currently characterize the system.

The report's analysis of the death penalty begins by taking note of the severity of death as a method of punishment, arguing that because the death penalty is irreversible there is a premium on ensuring its application is fair and equitable. They go on to show that the system as currently constituted does not meet these constitutionally mandated standards, focusing on four major problems areas. The issues highlighted include the lack of adequate review of capital convictions, the significant racial bias in their application, the unfair targeting of the mentally ill as capital defendants, and the woefully insufficient legal representation of the indigent defendants who make up the lion's share of individuals we execute.

Despite persistent concerns about wrongful convictions in capital cases, recent legislation has only made it more difficult for Courts to review challenges to capital convictions. 1996's Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act has placed severe restrictions on defendants' abilities to seek habeas relief, particularly as those challenges pertain to defendants' claims of actual innocence. The incredibly narrow scope of acceptable petitions makes it close to impossible to correct many constitutional oversights that occur at the trial phase, substantially increasing the risk that innocent people will be executed. This problem is compounded by the fact that defendants frequently do not have access to legal counsel during post-conviction review which leaves them at the mercy of a legal system that has already invested considerable resources in proving their guilt. To insure adequate review, the report recommends attorney general action to provide defendants with counsel, as well as congressional and executive support of amendments to the AEDPA which would eliminate restrictive requirements on appeals.

The problem of racial bias regarding the death penalty has been well documented-a Department of Justice study has shown that 73 % of federal capital cases involve non-white defendants, and research has shown that 40 % of the death row population is African American despite their making up only 12 % of the country's general population. Bias occurs at all levels of the process, as prosecutors are more likely to seek death for white victims, non-white defendants are more likely to accused of capital crimes, and they are less likely to receive pleas which take death off the table. DOJ regulations which ensure that the U.S. Attorney General must review all death-eligible cases contribute to this problem by overly centralizing the process, ensuring an alarmingly small number of people get to make the decision about which cases are worth prosecuting. The report suggests that the first step towards confronting this imbalance is to ensure adequate documentation of the problem which is why independent commissions must be erected to review the relationship between race and capital conviction. Additionally, legislative and executive action must be taken to eliminate racial discrimination in capital cases, including eliminating the excessive peremptory challenges that enable prosecutors to try minority defendants in front of all-white juries. The DOJ should also decentralize its review process to ensure that more eyes take a look at each case, thus increasing the opportunity to catch unjust prosecutions before they happen.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles and the mentally retarded lack the decision-making competence to be sentenced to death, similar protections have not been extended to the mentally ill who make up an alarmingly high percentage of death row inmates. These individuals frequently lack the self-awareness and control necessary to really understand or govern their behavior, which raises significant ethical questions about considering them fit for execution. The report recommends that Congress change U.S. code to explicitly prohibit the application of the death penalty to these individuals and that the Justice Department similarly commits to not pursue death in these cases.

The final area examined by the report is the lack of representation for capital defendants who generally amongst the poorest members of American society. These indigent defendants often have very limited access to counsel, and when they do, their attorneys are very often under-trained, overworked, and lack the independence necessary to adequately represent their clients. Given the vast resources the state and federal governments commit to capital prosecutions, this disequilibrium should give us pause as the risk that innocents are sentenced to die greatly increases when their lawyers are either unable or unwilling to provide them with meaningful defense. The congress is in the position to begin correcting this problem by increasing the independence of indigent defenders so that they can build their cases without interference from bosses who are also prosecutors. The report thus suggests starting, and adequately funding, an office of the Defender General which would supervise defense attorneys in these cases and provide them with the resources necessary to give defendants a fair shot at fighting their convictions.

While the best way to correct the flaws with the death penalty would be to stop applying it all, the Smart on Crime recommendations represent an important step in the right direction which should be embraced by capital punishment opponents. In addition to providing immediate relief to those currently facing capital charges, these reforms provide the building blocks for the creation of a more just and equitable criminal justice system. Research has consistently shown that one of the main contributing factors to support for the death penalty is citizen's relative ignorance on the subject; in this light, we can see the report and reforms it advocates as playing an important consciousness raising function. By forcing government officials and the public at large to think seriously about the flaws that plague the death penalty, the Smart on Crime report helps direct attention to just how broken the system is which will add increased urgency and support for the search for more effective alternatives.

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Victims Fund Shortfall Highlights Absurdity of California's Death Penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on February 16th, 2011

California’s victims restitution fund is running out of money. Since its conception in 1965, the California Victim Compensation Program has served as a source of financial relief for crime victims and their families who would not otherwise be able to pay their medical bills and other expenses engendered by the crime. Unfortunately, mounting costs are threatening the programs survival as requests for payment have begun to rapidly outstrip the state’s ability to collect the fines from misdemeanor and felony convictions that keep it running. At the current rate, insolvency seems inevitable as the fund’s debt will reach upwards of $30 million in as little as two years.

In the face of these impending shortfalls, state officials have gathered to consider cost cutting measures, though they estimate that even if the state goes ahead with proposed reductions, the program will still face major financial challenges because of the sheer number of crime victims who are entitled to assistance. To make matters worse, the state has consistently borrowed money from the fund as it attempts to combat its myriad other money problems.

If the state no longer has the cash necessary to help the victims of crimes, this raises the question of what criminal justice programs it deems worth funding in these lean times. Its answer apparently includes spending more than $ 137 million a year to maintain our system of capital punishment. The state is pouring new funds into the death penalty, including a planned $ 400 million on a state-of-the-art death row at San Quentin. These expenditures are not inevitable; in fact, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimates that the state could save as much as $ 125 million a year by commuting all of California’s death sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

In a time when our state’s purse strings are being drawn tighter than ever, every dollar spent is one that is not being spent someplace else.  It is unconscionable that California is willing to give millions to execute individuals at what is, at best, debatable benefit to crime victims when those dollars could be used to help the same victims cover costs they have no other way of meeting.  If we are really serious about our commitment to those who have suffered at the hands of criminals, it is time to take a hard look at the death penalty and the enormous financial sacrifices we must make to maintain it.

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Montana Closer to Abolishing the Death Penalty

Posted by Zac Stone on February 15th, 2011

Montana's state senate took a giant leap forward for human rights this week, passing a bill by a narrow margin that would permanently abolish the death penalty in the state.

Supporters of the bill to repeal the death penalty argued that the risk of putting an innocent person to death is simply too high, the financial costs are overwhelming, and the system disproportionately punishes minorities and the poor.

The most emotional pleas in support of the bill came from the loved ones of crime victims, like Diana Cote, whose teenage daughter was murdered in 2007. "The thing that hurt me worst was when people would come up to me and ask [if I wanted to seek] the death penalty." Cote continued, "I said, this person just murdered my daughter and you're asking me if I want to go out and murder him now?" During debate on the bill, its sponsor Sen. David Wanzenried of Missoula added that the necessary and lengthy death penalty appeals  process deprives victims' families of the closure that an immediate sentence of life without parole offers, saying too, "Our current system can't be made fair and it can't be made infallible."

Illinois death row exoneree Randy Steidl also made an impassioned argument against the death penalty, emphasizing the risks of sentencing innocent people to death, as he was once sentenced. Steidl and 19 others were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated from Illinois's death row; their cases influenced Illinois's legislature to pass a bill abolishing the death penalty there earlier this year. Gov. Pat Quinn has until March 18 to sign the bill into law.

Abolition in Montana now faces a huge hurtle in the state house of representatives, where it needs more than tacit support from the overwhelming Republican majority in order to pass. If legislators aren't swayed by the financial aspect - prosecuting capital cases in Montana costs six to seven times more than the $36,000 is costs to simply house an inmate for a year - then hopefully they will heed the impassioned calls of death row exonerees and crime victims' families for abolishing this most unjust punishment.
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Wrongful Convictions and Posthumous Exoneration

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on February 15th, 2011

For even the most ardent supporters of capital punishment, the issue of wrongful convictions presents a challenge which demands serious attention.  While the growing innocence movement has used many different strategies, one tool which receives inadequate attention is posthumous exoneration.  As Professor Samuel Wiseman forcefully argues in a upcoming article for the Case Western Law Review, these exonerations can give advocates the hard to come by evidence about why and how wrongful convictions occur, and can provide us with insights necessary to institute the reforms to prevent them in the future.

While the innocence movement has existed in one form or another for almost as long as the U.S.’s criminal justice system, it began to take its current shape in 1987 when Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet published their influential study Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases which documented 350 cases in which individuals had been imprisoned for crimes of which they were factually innocent.  The public interest in wrongful conviction sparked by their work was given a big push two years later when Gary Dotson became the first prisoner to have his conviction overturned on the basis of DNA evidence.  DNA tests have become an invaluable resource as they are able to provide a much higher degree of certainty regarding the defendant’s innocence then was previously available.  As a result, there has been a significant increase in exonerations as DNA tests have led to the freeing of an average of 18 people a year from 2000-2009. 

Exoneration has been incredibly important for those who oppose capital punishment—since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 138 death row inmates have had their convictions overturned.  While wrongful conviction is prevalent throughout the criminal justice system, many factors, including the difficulty of investigating capital crimes, the strong motivation for guilty parties to frame others, and society’s demand for quick and harsh punishment, make it disproportionately likely in capital cases.  While organizations like the Innocence Project put tireless effort into remedying these miscarriages of justice, there have been at least ten instances since 1976 when the state put an innocent to death.  Posthumous exonerations can help us ensure that these tragedies never happen again.

There have been five posthumous exonerations in the United States, and three of those cases involved death row inmates who died in prison prior to their execution date.  Because data on wrongful conviction is relatively scarce, exonerations are an important resource for pinpointing where breakdowns in the system occur.  Posthumous exonerations are particularly helpful in this regard because the lack of a living defendant eliminates public uneasiness about releasing supposed criminals, and allows the debate to focus squarely on the social ramifications of wrongful conviction.  These procedures can also help provide a measure of relief to family members of both defendants and crime victims, as well as generally increasing public confidence in a justice system which is frequently perceived as dangerously unwilling to admit its mistakes.

While posthumous exonerations have many benefits, the process is not perfect.  The largest problem is they are very difficult to make happen, as a legal doctrine called abatement provides a strong presumption in favor of the cases of deceased defendants.  Other concerns include a variety of jurisdictional issues that face courts, as well as a tendency, borne out in post-execution hearings regarding the likely innocence of Cameron Todd Willingham, of state officials to politicize the process and willfully disrupt hearings that look as though they might produce unfavorable results. 

These issues highlight the need for advocates to put pressure on their elected officials to establish innocence commissions and otherwise expand opportunities for courts or similar bodies to hear claims of actual innocence.  While there is much discussion of the particular form that these policies should take, what is crucial is that we work to provide a forum in which all potentially meritorious innocence claims can be heard and thoroughly investigated. 

An informed debate about the death penalty cannot occur without access to the facts.  Posthumous exonerations provide an important source of information about how the death penalty is practiced, and force proponents to come face to face with the human cost of the errors intrinsic to the system.

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The Expensive, Arbitrary and Inefficient State of the Death Penalty in California

Posted by Stefanie on February 11th, 2011

One of DPF's Board Members (aka "Lovechilde") is at it again. Check out his latest blog on the death penalty at He concludes:

 "Rather than perpetuating this expensive, arbitrary and inefficient state program, wouldn’t we be better off replacing the death penalty with life sentences, and focusing on crime prevention, crime solving and assistance to crime victims? Just do the math."

We think so.  Maybe that's why we like him so much.

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Judge visits new execution chamber in ongoing lethal injection controversy

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

This Tuesday marked an important development in the legal battle over California's lethal injection protocol as U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel inspected San Quentin State Prison's newly constructed execution chamber. Judge Fogel's visit comes as part of his supervision of the case of Michael Morales who has challenged the constitutionality of California's method for administering the death penalty, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Mr. Morales has been sentenced to death for the 1981 rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Lynn Winchell. He was scheduled to be executed in 2006 before Judge Fogel ruled that California's execution protocol posed an undue risk of causing unconstitutionally painful death. The ruling identified many serious flaws in the procedure, including inadequate screening and training of execution team members, unreliable and haphazard methods for preparing the anesthetic used in the lethal injection cocktail, and poor lighting and dangerously overcrowding in the execution chamber itself. The Court did provided the state with its choice of remedies, ruling that prison officials must either hire physicians to be present during executions so that someone with medical expertise could intervene if it appeared that anesthesia had failed, or, alternatively, that inmates must be directly injected by a corrections officer to ensure that all components of the cocktail were properly administered. While the state initially chose the former option, it was unable to find doctors willing to be so intimately involved in the procedure. Because prison officials were unwilling to perform the injections themselves, Judge Foley was forced to suspend all executions while the state tried to overhaul its system to avoid potential constitutional challenges.

Five years later Judge Foley has returned to the prison he initially declared unfit to carry out executions. In the meantime, California has introduced a new set of procedures that are currently being reviewed in state court. The state has also spent almost one million dollars on the new facility and plans to commit millions more to expanding the size of the prison's death row. Unfortunately for state prison officials, this exuberance seems misplaced, as both the pending state legal challenges, as well as a shortage of the key execution anesthetic, sodium thiopental, mean that the new facilities may never be used. California's eagerness to appear tough on crime has once again caused us to adopt policies which make no sense fiscally, only adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars a year we spend on capital punishment over what it would cost to commute all sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

While Fogel's impending ruling may not entirely resolve the questions facing California's lethal injection protocol, the careful consideration he has given the matter should give hope to those of us who have serious concerns about the death penalty. We can only hope that this hard look at how it is we actually execute prisoners will spark further efforts to develop more effective, and humane, alternatives.

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Still A Long Way to go

Posted by Yoko on February 4th, 2011

Recently the Japanese prime minister appointed a new minister of justice, Satsuki Eda, who is personally opposed to the death penalty.

While this is good news, there have been several ministers of justice in the past who were opposed to the death penalty, who still signed death warrants. Therefore, we shouldn’t assume Eda’s personal position will necessarily cause him to act differently. Also Eda recently apologized for his remarks criticizing the death penalty system and announced that he’d like to withdraw the remarks even though he still feels that the system is flawed.

I believe having a justice minister who opposes the death penalty is not enough to sway public opinion; there will need to be other powerful incentives to change public sentiment.

After careful consideration, I believe the following changes need to be made before Japan can successfully move towards abolition:

First, the introduction of “a life without possibility of parole sentence” is extremely crucial because no such option exists in Japan.  Without this option, people will continue to prefer the death penalty to life in prison with a chance of parole when it comes to people who have committed heinous crimes.

Next, it will be very important to provide the public with accurate statistical information which shows that wrongful convictions are always possible, even in cases that first appear to be “slam dunks.”  Last year, Mr. Toshikazu Sugaya was exonerated after serving almost 19 years for allegedly killing a four year old girl. It is said that the police felt pressure to solve the case and indentified Sugaya to assuage the public’s fears. Later their sloppy investigation process was revealed.

Finally, the concept and definition of punishment should be reexamined – I believe that retaliation and revenge are not the same thing as punishment.  Yet it is often said that the death penalty is the most “reasonable” punishment for people who are responsible for atrocious crimes, especially when we consider the victims’ families’ feelings and their sorrow. The government should be more interested in justice than revenge. Punishment should rehabilitate and correct behavior deemed illegal and reintegrate individuals into mainstream society. This process may require some people to spend the rest of their lives in the justice system but people who committed crimes should be able to feel, think and reflect on their transgressions.

I hope that people in Japan will realize one day, as I did, that the taking of another human being’s life is murder whether it is committed by an individual or the government.

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Just a little more about Sodium Thiopental

Posted by Zac Stone on February 4th, 2011

You may recall the recent news about states importing sodium thiopental, the anesthetic used in lethal injections, from the U.K., and the FDA allowing the drug to enter the U.S. to be used in executions without reviewing the drug for safety or effectiveness or any other measure of its quality, despite the sodium thiopental being dated 2006 (it generally has a 1-year lifespan) and likely coming from an Austrian facility that no longer exists through two British pharmaceutical distributors, one of which is housed in a west London driving school.

Attorneys for six death row inmates have now filed a federal lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration for allowing states to import these unapproved supplies of sodium thiopental from the U.K. in violation of federal regulations. The law firm Sidley Austin and partner Bradford Berenson, a former associated counsel to President George W. Bush, on behalf of Arizona inmates Donald Beaty, Daniel Cook, and Eric King, California inmates Steve Livaditis and Brett Pensinger, and Tennessee inmate Stephen West, allege that the FDA shirked its responsibilities to screen all drugs coming into the United States from unregistered foreign drug suppliers and to refuse to admit drugs into the country that appear adulterated or misbranded.

This lapse by the FDA means, particularly in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Nebraska, and Tennessee, which have all received shipments of thiopental from the U.K., that prisoners being executed may undergo excruciating pain if ineffective thiopental is used before other drugs paralyze the inmate and induce cardiac arrest.

While the FDA has previously stated that reviewing drugs "used for the purpose of state-authorized lethal injection clearly falls outside of FDA's explicit public health role," this would not appear to be the case, at least according to the dozens of federal regulations cited by the plaintiffs.

"The FDA is improperly allowing drugs into the United States even though it won't stand behind their safety and efficacy," said attorney Berenson. "Using [unapproved thiopental] in executions creates unacceptable risks that prisoners will not be properly anesthetized before the other drugs used in lethal injection protocols stop the prisoners' breathing and induce cardiac arrest. Whatever one's views may be on the death penalty, no reasonable person is in favor of botched or inhumane executions."

As our prediction for lengthy legal battles surrounding thiopental use becomes reality even sooner than we expected, the risk of unintentionally torturing an inmate looms large. Following through with botched executions stands in opposition to years of human rights progress and puts corrections staff and medical personnel in a position no rational person would relish. The results of this lawsuit will have especially grave impacts in California, which is stocked with enough untested, foreign thiopental for more than a hundred executions after ongoing legal challenges to the system have been settled. Whether you believe a humane execution can exist, it is nearly impossible to defend a state in subjecting prisoners to insufferable pain, regardless of the crimes they have committed.

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Whittier Woman's Pain Prolonged by Death Penalty Process

Posted by Judy Kerr, California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on January 27th, 2011

Murder victim family members, like the 500+ supporters of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, have various compelling reasons for opposing the death penalty.  Perhaps none is more heart rending than the story of Jan Williams

In August of 2007, Jan Williams’ son, Neal, and two grandchildren, Devon and Ian, were murdered by her daughter-in-law.  The murder was vicious and horrifying and the killer, Manling Williams, was arrested and imprisoned immediately.  There has never been much question about her guilt, and perhaps even less question that she should be held accountable for her violent killing.

A jury found Manling guilty of murder, but deadlocked on whether or not she should receive the death penalty.  After enduring the pain and stress of the trial, Jan decided she did not want the death penalty for Manling and asked prosecutors to opt for life without parole instead.  She felt that a death sentence, with its years of appeals and repeated court dates, would only prolong the suffering of both families involved.  Knowing that her son and grandchildren’s killer was behind bars for life would provide enough relief.

Unfortunately, the prosecutors haven’t listened to Jan. Despite her many public statements decrying the process that will drag her through years of appeals and continually reopen wounds that might otherwise begin to heal, we learned earlier this month that the death penalty trial of Manling Williams is set to continue. 

Jan Williams is not alone.  The hundreds of murder victim family members who comprise California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty know that the death penalty does not serve victims’ needs.   Like Jan, many CCV supporters have had to endure to pain and suffering of the death penalty process only to learn that neither a death sentence nor an execution would bring them any closure.  After all, the death penalty cannot bring back their loved ones.

The story of Aba Gayle, whose beautiful daughter Catherine Blount was murdered in 1980, comes to mind.  Douglas Mickey, the man convicted of murdering Catherine, was sentenced to death.  The District Attorney assured Aba Gayle that Mickey’s execution would help her heal.  For several years following Catherine’s death, Aba Gayle believed this.  Eventually, however, she realized that her thirst for revenge was actually precluding her from beginning to heal. 

Rev. Cathy Harrington faced a similar situation.  After her beautiful daughter, Leslie, and her daughter’s roommate, Adrienne, were brutally murdered, Cathy faced the prospect of a death penalty trial for the man convicted of the murders.  As a parish minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, Cathy opposed the death penalty.  Her sons disagreed and told her not to protest the death penalty. 

However, after several trips from Michigan to California for pretrials and hearings, enduring unwanted media attention, and the threat of further exploitation, her sons began to question their position.  They agreed that having the freedom to grieve Leslie’s death and move toward healing was more important than the death penalty.  With the help of a victim outreach specialist, Cathy’s family was able to negotiate a sentence of life without parole.

As we celebrate success in Illinois and hope for Governor Quinn’s signature on repeal, let’s remember these stories and double our efforts to end California’s death penalty in honor of the victims and their survivors.  We know that the death penalty does not deter crime.  We know that in California we are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on a failed system.  We know that the possibility of executing an innocent person is all too real.

We also know, and will do well to keep close in our hearts and minds, the names of the victims of these horrible homicides.  Their families and survivors hope for justice and it is with that hope that we can move forward, building alliances that will allow us to finally end the death penalty, and replace it with an alternative that addresses the needs of victims and survivors of violence.

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Ohio Justice and Department of Corrections Head Publicly Oppose Death Penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on January 26th, 2011

Two prominent members of Ohio’s criminal justice system have recently come out in opposition to their state’s death penalty. The first, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, is the senior member of the Ohio Supreme Court, and, as a state senator, co-authored Ohio’s 1981 death penalty statute. Justice Pfeifer first voiced his opposition during last Tuesday’s swearing in of newly elected Governor John Kasich when he asked the Governor to commute the sentence of the 157 prisoners on death row to life without parole. Justice Pfeifer has expounded on his comments, writing an editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer where he argued that Ohio’s death penalty is applied far more frequently and with much less judicial oversight than its authors has intended. He goes on to point out that Ohio now has the ability to sentence prisoners to life without the possibility of parole, abrogating the need for the death penalty as means to ensure criminals receive adequately severe punishment. Because many of the individuals on death row received their sentences prior to the passage of the life without parole law, Ohio executes individuals according to what amounts to a “death lottery.”

Justice Pfeifer’s criticism has already mobilized others, as Terry Collins, the former director of Ohio’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, responded with an editorial of his own where he echoed the Justice’s concerns and added several more pointed criticisms of Ohio’s system of capital punishment. Mr. Collins emphasized the extreme cost of the death penalty, the inconsistencies in its application, as well as the often overlooked negative impact it can have on the families of murder victims who are forced to attend painful hearings for years and years after they have lost their loved ones. Mr. Collins concluded by urging Ohioans to seriously consider replacing the death penalty with life without parole, which he described as a “swift, certain, [and] effectively severe” alternative.

Justice Pfeifer and Mr. Collins are now two more members of the growing group of former death penalty supporters who have publically come to oppose capital punishment. We can only hope that more people will show similar courage and continue to speak out in favor of creating a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system, not just in Ohio, but throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

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Access to Sodium Thiopental Forces States to Change Death Penalty Laws

Posted by Zac Stone on January 25th, 2011

California and other death penalty states may have to change their death penalty laws in response to the announcement by the Illinois-based Hospira Inc., the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental, that it will stop producing the anesthetic included in the cocktail of drugs used in the nation's execution chambers.

Supply of the drug fell below demand after a raw materials shortage that began in 2009, and California corrections officials scrambled to get their hands on enough sodium thiopental to follow through with the September 30th, 2010-scheduled execution of Albert Greenwood Brown, a man convicted of raping and murdering a teenaged girl in Riverside. Fortunately for justice, a court stayed Brown's execution after they determined the expiration date of the state's remaining supply of thiopental - October 1st, 2010 - had influenced Brown's execution date.

Very few questions remain about the incident after the ACLU sued for the disclosure of information regarding California's search for thiopental, which included a drive to Arizona to pick up 12 grams of the drug, sold to Arizona corrections officials by Dream Pharma Ltd., an unassuming London pharmaceutical wholesaler, and manufactured by the British Archimedes Pharma. The British government, in response to the Arizona deal, outlawed the export of sodium thiopental for use in executions, but not before California was able to place a $36,415 order for 514.5 more grams of the anesthetic (three grams are necessary for an execution, with another three required on backup by the state's lethal injection protocol), ensuring that California will have the capacity to kill another hundred-odd prisoners should the occasion arise before the new 2014 expiration date. The legality of using the non-FDA-approved stash for executions will likely be decided in the courts.

Hospira, which was the only FDA-approved source of sodium thiopental, planned to move its production of the drug from North Carolina to a new plant in Italy, a non-death penalty country that demanded the company's assurances that its drugs would not be used to execute inmates. The EU and many European countries already have laws prohibiting the direct support of capital punishment and those that don't are beginning to, the sting of WWII and the Holocaust still exacting its psychological toll. The company decided to discontinue the drug rather than face sanctions by the Italian government for providing execution drugs to the United States.

The move will force many state governments to amend their death penalty laws, ensuring legislative battles and lengthy litigation in many cases. Of the 35 states that still practice lethal injection, 34 use thiopental. Oklahoma recently switched to the anesthetic pentobarbital, commonly used to euthanize animals; Ohio has said it will go this route and other states will no doubt follow suit, but for many states, as in California, the use of sodium thiopental is a requirement of the lethal injection protocol, any change to which will be hotly contested. After four years of legislative hearings and litigation, legal challenges to California's recently amended lethal injection protocol regulations are still ongoing - the reason the state hasn't executed anyone since January of 2006.

Officials in Texas, the nation's most active executioner, have already announced they are exploring the use of other sedatives. The state has only enough sodium thiopental for two of the four executions scheduled there through July. Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas, among others, have all faced a shortage of the drug in recent months. Dwindling thiopental stocks coupled with Europe's increased hostility to pro-death penalty interests will push California and other death penalty states to pursue other options. With work and luck, some of those states might consider the costs of maintaining the death penalty - both in financial terms and in human life - to be prohibitive. States with hundreds of inmates sitting on death row like California, Texas, and Florida, stand to lose billions of dollars over just the next few years prosecuting criminals who could much less expensively live out their lives in prison cells for the wrongs they've perpetrated, while running the risk of executing an innocent and continuing to prolong the suffering of victims' families, withholding the closure that comes with knowing an offender will be imprisoned forever. There remains one life-saving, economical alternative to using sodium thiopental - abolishing the death penalty. It is the only option that ensures states will save billions of dollars in the near term while protecting human life.

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New Voices Speak Out in Opposition to the Death Penalty

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on January 20th, 2011