The Death Penalty Blog

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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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.

Posted in Blog, Sentencing | 1 comments

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.

Posted in Blog, Cost, Race, Sentencing | no comments

Texas Appeals Court Stops Death Penalty Hearing

Posted by James Brockway, Guest Blogger on January 12th, 2011

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has decided to permanently stop the hearing in Texas v. Green, which examined the constitutionality of Texas's death penalty in light of the frequency of wrongful convictions.

The Court ruled that District Judge Kevin Fine did not have the jurisdiction to hear arguments on capital punishment's constitutionality, especially at the pre-trial stage of the process.  The Court did recognize the seriousness of Green's concerns and urged the legislature to look closely at the problem.

While it is good to hear the Court recognize the seriousness of the risk of wrongful conviction, it is unfortunate that they were unwilling to take their responsibility to ensure that Texas's judicial system does its part to prevent the execution of innocents.  The two days of testimony prior to the original stay represented an attempt to honestly and thoroughly investigate Texas's death penalty.  This is a conversation that must be continued both in the legal system and in the court of public opinion.

Results of DNA Testing Come Too Late for Claude Jones

Posted by on November 16th, 2010

Posted by Cheryl Cotterill, Guest Blogger

When Claude Jones was convicted of capital murder in 1990, the technology did not exist to test the only physical evidence provided by the prosecution as proof of his guilt--a single strand of hair.  According to the prosecution, in 1989 Jones robbed a liquor store and shot Allen Hilzendager with a gun belonging to Timothy Jordan while Jones' other accomplice, Kerry Dixon, waited in the car.  At trial, Jordan testified against Jones but in 2004 recanted his testimony stating that everything he had reported at trial actually came from Dixon and not Jones.  Jordan also stated that the police had told him what to say in exchange for a reduced sentence in the case.  Because accomplice testimony alone cannot be the sole basis for a conviction in Texas, the hair evidence was crucial to the prosecution's case.  As a result of the hair evidence Jones was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.  Jordan plea bargained and received a 10-year sentence for a lesser offense.  Jones always maintained his innocence.

Ten years later and while Jones was still alive, technology had been developed to determine whether or not the hair used to convict Jones actually belonged to him.  But rather than find out the truth and possibly save an innocent man's life, Texas instead opted to go ahead with the execution.  Jones had requested a stay of execution so that the hair evidence could be submitted for DNA testing but then Governor George W. Bush denied his request as did two Texas courts.  On December 7, 2000, Jones was strapped to a gurney and administered a lethal injection of drugs.

Now after three years of battling the courts, the Observer and three innocence groups were finally able to obtain the hair evidence and submit it for mitochondrial DNA testing.  On November 11, 2010, the results came back showing that the hair did not belong to Jones after all. The hair, it turns out, belonged to the murder victim, Allen Hilzendager. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said in a statement: "Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life."

Posted in Blog, Sentencing | 2 comments

Have You Read Wilbert Rideau’s Book In The Place of Justice?

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on November 3rd, 2010

I read Rideau's book because it was recommended in the June edition of DPF's newsletter The Sentry! I am very glad I did. In The Place of Justice is a revealing account of prison life at Angola State Penitentiary and the jail at Calcasieu over the last four decades. Wilbert Rideau spent forty four years as an inmate in Louisiana and he describes in vivid detail how life in prison changed over those years. In the sixties, Angola State Prison was considered one of the most dangerous prisons in the country, but over time it has become one of the safest.

Interwoven between descriptions of prison life is the personal story of Mr. Rideau. In 1961, the year To Kill a Mocking Bird was published, Rideau killed a white bank employee during the course of a botched robbery. Initially, Rideau was condemned to death by an all white jury. We learn how a black man charged with killing a white woman in the early 1960's had all the cards stacked against him.

He spent twelve years on death row before his sentence was automatically commuted to a life sentence when the death penalty was suspended nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He went on to spend another thirty-two years in Angola prison educating himself and, in the seventies, becoming the editor of The Angolite, the award-winning prison newspaper. With Rideau as editor, the paper covered the return of the death penalty in 1976, without sparing us details of the gas chamber and the man who pulled the switch.

But this book is not just about the imperfections of prisons, the justice system and humans: it is also a personal story about courage and hope. Rideau learns how to cope with despair and move on. As his efforts to win his freedom are ruthlessly and vindictively rejected, he learns how to make the very best of a bad situation. The book reads very well and this is not surprising because Rideau is a prize winning journalist - and was a prize-winning journalist, even as an inmate. And finally this book is about love, determination and devotion. Rideau is supported in his quest for justice by his lady knight and a loyal defense team and the end is in the best happy-ever-after tradition!

Wilbert Rideau now works as a consultant for capital defense teams in federal and state cases, and speaks at state legal conferences and educational seminars, as well as universities and for private groups. More information can be found on his website:

You can purchase the book here:

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Death Penalty Usage Maps Show Infrequent Use of the Sentence

Posted by Stefanie on October 22nd, 2010

This remarkable sideshow of maps (below), created by Robert Smith (Staff Attorney at Capital Appeals Project / Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice) for a recent blog post he wrote for Second Class Justice, reveals that the death penalty is slowly fading away in the United States.  

Inadequate Legal Counsel a Key Concern in Death Penalty Cases

Posted by Erica Sanders, Guest Blogger on September 30th, 2010

As the multitude of problems with our capital punishment system become increasingly apparent, one stands out to be particularly troubling. Inmates without the financial means to hire a private attorney are statistically much more likely to be sentenced to death than their wealthier counterparts. Those who cannot afford a private attorney are constitutionally entitled to a court-appointed public defender. Unfortunately, such attorneys are often overworked and lack the time, skills and experience necessary to properly defend their clients. As a result, research indicates that a gross socio-economic disparity in death penalty sentencing has arisen.

The statistical evidence is overwhelming. An examination of 461 capital cases by The Dallas Morning News found that nearly one in four condemned inmates has been represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who have been disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. Similarly, in Washington State, one-fifth of the 84 people who have faced execution in the past 20 years were represented by lawyers who had been, or were later, disbarred, suspended or arrested. In some cases, court appointed defense attorneys have slept through trials and even appeared to court under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Highlighting concerns about inadequate legal representation is the case of Kentucky inmate Gregory Wilson, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of the murder of Kentucky woman Deborah Pooley. Wilson was only grated $2,500 for legal defense. Two lawyers volunteered to defend him; one had no experience with felony cases and the other gave the number to a local bar as his office phone. Wilson’s lawyers were often not present for trials, during which time he was forced to represent himself.

Yet another case demonstrating the damage done by poor counsel is the case of 50 year old British born citizen Linda Carty, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of ordering her neighbor's murder. As a British citizen, Carty was entitled to request legal representation from the British government. However, Carty was never informed by her lawyer of her right to do so. It was only after her sentencing that the British government became aware of her case and has since filed an amicus brief stating that if they had been notified, all efforts would have been made to provide Carty with effective legal counsel. Also troubling is that throughout the duration of the trial, Carty’s lawyer only met with her once, for 15 minutes, to discuss the case.

The relationship between inadequate counsel and death penalty sentencing underscores the systemic nature of injustice. In the United States, poverty disproportionately affects people of color. Therefore minorities who face trial for murder are disproportionately sentenced to death in part due to their inability to hire a private attorney. African Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 53% of the death row population although they constitute less than 30% of the general populous.
Ultimately, the measures in place to defend those facing capital punishment are flawed to say the least.

We are in desperate need of a system in which punishment is determined by severity of crime, not social privilege.

Posted in Blog, Race, Sentencing | 1 comments

NH Supreme Court Justice on the Death Penalty

Posted by The Hon. Joseph P. Nadeau, Retired Justice of the Supreme Court of New Hampshire on June 25th, 2010

It has been my good fortune to serve as a judge in New Hampshire for thirty-seven years. For thirteen of those years I was presiding justice of the Durham District Court. I served as a justice of the Superior Court for eighteen years, nine of which I spent as chief justice. And I sat on the Supreme Court for six years before retiring in December of 2005. I am proud of our judicial system and the effort of judges in all our courts to treat people fairly and equally, and to protect their individual rights.

While serving as a judge, I rarely expressed my opinion on capital punishment privately, and until now I never expressed my opinion publicly. Nor did I let my personal opinions influence my judicial decisions. In fact, in 1998 I presided over the capital murder case of Gordon Perry, and on every motion filed on his behalf challenging New Hampshire’s capital punishment statute, I ruled he had not established that the law violated our constitution.

Last week, I appeared before the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty, whose members I commend for their willingness to undertake the important and challenging task assigned to them by the legislature . My purpose in speaking to the commission was not to talk about facts and statistics or trials and cases but to address the moral issue of death as punishment.

The way we have been dealing with the death penalty for years is to talk about enacting laws, adopting procedures, establishing practices and providing mechanisms, as if by creating an elaborate process we could somehow sanitize the death penalty and thereby ignore the moral issues that capital punishment presents. We cannot.

I appeared before the Commission to answer one straightforward but complex question: Do I believe the systematic killing of another human being by the state, in my name, is justified?

My answer to that question is, No.

During my tenure as a judge, I met many people with strong opinions about capital punishment.  Through most of that period, over two thirds of those polled in the United States regularly supported the death penalty. Some people I respect still do. So you would think that anyone looking for answers based upon public opinion or strongly held views should have an easy task.

What is the problem, then?  In the face of these odds, why do we continue to struggle with the acceptability of death as punishment?  I believe one reason we engage in this process is that no matter what some people say publicly about capital punishment, deep inside many are not as certain as they proclaim.

I believe another reason is that our thinking evolves, as people, technology, and societies progress. And what is acceptable at one time in our history may become unwelcome at another. If that is true then, we are encouraged to re-examine our core principles and to consider whether death continues to be an acceptable punishment in New Hampshire.

I have great respect for the offices of the Attorney General and the Public Defender and for the integrity and competence with which the attorneys in those offices handle homicide cases. The primary source of my continuing concern about the death penalty, however, is not New Hampshire’s limited capital murder experience but my own professional exposure to criminal justice issues.

There is no question that people who commit murder must be punished and should be removed from society. Life in prison without parole does both. It is interesting to note that two states, New Hampshire, which has not employed the death penalty since before Pearl Harbor, and North Dakota which does not condone capital punishment, did not need death to achieve the lowest murder rates in the nation every year of this century.

No legal system is perfect. Human beings make mistakes. That is one reason we accept the notion that occasionally the guilty will go free and the innocent will be convicted.  But I do not believe anyone accepts the notion that it is alright for a person to be wrongfully executed. So with the most respected judicial system in the world, how can we willingly embrace a sentence which cannot be reversed after it is imposed; and how can we continue to believe that it is morally acceptable for the state to take a human life?

My answer is, we cannot.

As most of us, I have never experienced the emotions felt by a murder victim’s loved ones, and I may never know for sure that I could not be persuaded by the desire for personal revenge to seek the death penalty for a person I knew killed someone I love. But for me, neither of these deficiencies makes opposition to the death penalty any less compelling.

I am not a death penalty expert.

I am not a spokesperson for the judiciary.

I am one New Hampshire citizen; one person, who believes it is not necessary to kill to show that killing is wrong.

So after thirty-seven years on the bench; after presiding over hundreds of jury trials; after sitting on numerous criminal cases; after listening to witnesses in scores of sentencing hearings; after considering information in thousands of probation reports; after imposing sentences upon countless convicted defendants; after entertaining the arguments of lawyers at every level of skill; after talking with a host of judges and corrections officials; and after continued personal reflection; this is what I believe about capital punishment:

  • The threat of its use is not a deterrent to the commission of a homicide, because those who kill do not consider the sentence before they act or do not expect to be caught, or both.
  • The threat of its use is not necessary to protect the people of New Hampshire for the same reason.
  • Its abolition does not dishonor those who serve in law enforcement because honor comes from personal pride and earned respect, not from the ability of the state to execute a human being.
  • Its abolition does not diminish the voice of murder victims because the right of all victims to be heard is intended to come at the time defendants are sentenced not at the time they are charged.
  • It provides no more justice than life in prison without parole because justice is not measured by the sentences we impose.
  • To seek and carry out the death penalty costs the state much more in time and taxes than to prosecute and confine a person to prison for life.
  • To seek and carry out the death penalty consumes inordinate resources of courts, prosecution, defense and law enforcement.
  • The decision whether to seek the death penalty is too easily swayed by public opinion, political pressure and media attention.
  • Its potential as a prosecutorial tool is outweighed by its capacity for misuse.
  • It is too easily subject to selective prosecution.
  • It is too likely to be imposed upon minorities and the poor.
  • It is too likely to depend upon the persuasiveness of lawyers.
  • Its imposition is too readily subject to the emotions of individual jurors.
  • Its imposition is too clearly dependent upon the composition of the particular jury empanelled for each case.
  • It inevitably leads to disparate sentences.
  • It creates the unacceptable risk that a person may be wrongfully executed.
  • It exalts rage over reason.
  • It diminishes our character as a people.
  • And in the end, I believe it serves just one purpose: vengeance.

It is for these reasons, and from a personal abhorrence of the premeditated execution of a human being by the state, that I appeared before the Commission to speak in favor of the abolition of the death penalty in New Hampshire.

San Bernardino Jury Rejects Death Sentence

Posted by Stefanie on June 14th, 2010

Some good news on the sentencing front in California.  Juries in San Bernardino County, known for its high number of death verdicts, have started to turn away from the death penalty. Jurors have reject death in at least three cases in as many months. In the most recent case, jurors rejected a death sentence in favor of life without parole for Mathew Manzano.  

The prosecuting attorney in the Manzano made an interesting comment to the Press-Enterprise:

"The reality is, life in prison without the possibility of parole is the better of the two punishments," said Supervising Deputy District Attorney Michael McDowell. "But there is the emotional quality about the title of 'death,' even though it would likely never be carried out."

Even prosecutors are beginning to acknowledge that the death penalty is a hollow promise, which begs the question: Why is California still spending so much money on a sentence that will never be carried out when we have life without parole as an alternative?

Posted in Blog, Sentencing | no comments

US Supreme court cites international standards of decency -- quick note

Posted by Elizabeth Zitrin, International Coordinator, on May 17th, 2010

The United State Supreme Court ruled today that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole when the crime does not involve murder, given the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority decision of the US Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, said that the sentence is exceedingly rare," that “a national consensus has developed against it and it has been “rejected the world over.”

“The judgment of the world’s nations that a particular sentencing practice is inconsistent with basic principles of decency,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “demonstrates that the court’s rationale has respected reasoning to support it.”

This reasoning applies to the death penalty as well.  We're on our way.


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