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Yesterday, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 1611, also called the “Michael Morton Act,” into law, requiring prosecutors to give defense lawyers any evidence that is relevant to their client’s case to avoid information being hidden at trial that could lead to a wrongful conviction.
Michael Morton, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for the 1986 murder of his wife, Christine, spent nearly 25 years behind bars before he was exonerated in 2011. DNA testing finally revealed the real perpetrator. Morton’s lawyers discovered that Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in the original trial, had intentionally hidden evidence that could have helped Morton’s defense. Morton believes that if this bill had been in place before his trial then he would not have been wrongfully convicted. Since his exoneration, he has been lobbying for legislation that would help prevent this from happening to others.
“This is a huge victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system,” said Perry, who gave the pen he used to sign the bill to a smiling Morton. Perry noted that it was fitting that he was signing this bill almost 50 years to the day since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brady v. Maryland, which requires that prosecutors give defendants information that is “material either to guilt or to punishment.” The new Texas bill requires that the prosecution hand over all evidence regardless of its materiality to guilt or punishment. The Morton Act is the first significant reform to Texas discovery laws since 1965.
Tennessee isn’t immune from the issue addressed by the Morton Act. In fact, many members of the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty urged Tennessee to consider just such a policy. The Morton Act allows for both the prosecution and defense to access the facts in order to put on their best cases and would only make the system fairer. Perhaps Tennessee, a state that since 2000 has executed six and released four wrongfully convicted men from death row, would do well to follow Texas’ lead.
(Photo of Gov. Perry shaking hands with Michael Morton after signing SB 1611. By Marjorie Kamys Cotera of The Texas Tribune)
Next month will mark one year since Ndume Olatushani walked out of the Shelby County Jail after spending 28 years in prison (20 on Tennessee’s death row) for a crime the overwhelming evidence shows he did not commit. Yesterday, Nashville News Channel 5 did a great segment on Ndume’s story.
Nashville’s The Contributor, a twice-monthly street newspaper, also featured Ndume in their last issue, and Pursuit Magazine ran the first of a two-part series on Ndume last month. The next segment is due to be out soon. While he was in prison, Ndume taught himself how to paint and has created numerous beautiful pieces of art. His collection has been on display at Vanderbilt University’s Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, and he is featured in the May issue of the Nashville Arts Magazine.
We are thrilled that Ndume’s amazing story is being told. His case illustrates just how broken our death penalty system is. As Ndume often says, he is free today not because the system worked, but despite it. And we’re so happy that he is finally free!
Photo of Ndume, his wife Ann-Marie, and their puppy, Jasper taken last summer at the TADP state office.
For several months now, I have been interning here at TADP. I am so grateful for the insight this experience has given me, and I am sad to be saying my goodbyes today. The main feeling I take with me, however, is hope.
In my short time here, we have seen years of hard work pay off. Just this month, Maryland became the eighteenth state to repeal the death penalty. Each state that repeals offers new opportunities for discussion across the country. Each small change takes us a step closer to the tipping point where it is no longer easy to pretend that there is unanimous support for capital punishment. The conversation is growing and it will be for a long time to come.
Unfortunately, a number of events in the past year have brought to the surface the feelings that make it hard to feel safe enough to keep moving forward. Mass shootings, such as Sandy Hook Elementary, and bombings at the Boston Marathon bring back the grips of fear. The fear can become so great that it makes putting on more and thicker armor as our only protection. The death penalty can become part of that false armor, but it will never give us the real safety we seek. It cannot truly keep us safe because it is failing to give us real justice, deterrence, and closure.
I hope that the coming years bring us into a safer place. I hope that we continue to see positive ways to make victims’ family members, wrongly accused persons, and all members of our society safe. And, I believe that we will see these things happen because groups like TADP are working across the country to make us safe in a meaningful way. I am grateful to have been a part of it.
Photo by Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography
The day after Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed the death penalty repeal bill into law last week, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger and other supporters of capital punishment announced that they are launching a petition drive to take the issue to the ballot in the hopes of overturning the new law. They plan to utilize Delegate Neil Parrott’s signature-gathering website, MDPetitions.com, in order to garner the 55,736 valid signatures that are needed by June 30 to put the measure on the ballot in November 2014. They must deliver the first 18,000 signatures by the end of this month.
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), sent out a message today assuring supporters that they are committed to fighting the reinstatement of the death penalty in Maryland. In order to do so, they, along with Maryland CASE, NAACP, and other partners that fought so hard for repeal, will need your help. They are calling on people across the country to join the National Action Team, as they will need phone bankers and bloggers as well as financial support to help uphold the victory that we all celebrated last week. You can pledge to help out here.
You can also help by asking friends and family members who are concerned about human rights and social justice to join the national movement. They can also sign up here to learn more and get involved in Tennessee. Together, we can move our state and our country away from the death penalty.
Moments ago, Governor Martin O’Malley signed SB 276 into law, making Maryland the 18th state without the death penalty and the sixth in six years to repeal! In March, Maryland’s legislators concluded that even though their system of capital punishment was strictly limited, it was still broken and outdated and needed to be abolished. Maryland’s move to officially end the death penalty today is consistent with a global trend towards ending capital punishment and finding more effective policies to ensure public safety.
TADP congratulates our colleagues at Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, Witness to Innocence, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Equal Justice USA, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, Amnesty International, and all of the many partners and individuals who played a role in Maryland’s success!
You can help spread the word about Maryland and help make the case for repeal here in Tennessee by using this tool to craft your own letter to the editor of your local newspaper: http://tinyurl.com/mdlte
(Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Sun: Repeal supporters celebrate on March 15 when the MD General Assembly voted to repeal the death penalty. Left to right: Sylvester and Vicki Schieber, whose daughter Shannon was murdered; Kirk Bloodworth, a former Maryland death row inmate who was exonerated by DNA; and Ben Jealous, President of NAACP)
Willie Jerome Manning, a Mississippi death row inmate who was convicted of the 1992 abduction and murders of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, two Mississippi State University students, is set to be executed on May 7th despite his plea that DNA testing could prove that he is innocent. Although Manning was convicted on circumstantial evidence and no physical evidence has ever linked him to the crime, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision on Thursday that there is “overwhelming evidence of guilt,” and therefore, DNA testing is not needed.
Justice Leslie King, one of the four judges who sided with Manning, found it especially disturbing that hairs that were found in one of the victim’s car were analyzed only to the extent that they were found to be from a black person and that the prosecution linked this evidence to Manning because he is black. “Should a DNA test demonstrate that the African-American hairs found in Miller’s car did not belong to Manning, then the infirmity in the prosecution’s emphasis on the importance of this evidence would be exposed. And it would certainly raise reasonable questions regarding Manning’s guilt,” said King.
The Innocence Project has created a petition calling on Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant to stay Manning’s execution and order the DNA testing that will definitively prove his guilt or innocence. Please add your name here!
Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia that people with an intellectual disability are to be excluded from execution because of their reduced culpability, a federal appeals court has ignored that ruling and denied Warren Lee Hill’s petition for the court to consider new evidence that points to his intellectual disability, thus lifting his stay of execution.
Hill, a Georgia death row inmate with an IQ of only 70, came within 30 minutes of being executed this February when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a stay of execution to review new affidavits by doctors who changed their minds about his mental capacity. The state court of appeals also issued a stay to allow more time to consider a challenge to Georgia’s lethal injection protocol. Hill was also issued a stay for the same reason just 90 minutes before he was to be executed last July.
The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 vote yesterday that the affidavits of three doctors who originally examined Hill in 2000 testifying that he was not intellectually disabled but who now have changed their diagnoses, are not enough for the court to reconsider his case. Unfortunately, Georgia is the only state that requires defendants to prove their intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, which experts argue is a nearly impossible standard to meet. Yet as Brian Krammer, Hill’s lawyer, points out, “the new evidence shows that every mental health expert ever to examine him finds that Mr. Hill has mental retardation and is thus ineligible for execution according to the constitution of the United States.”
Astonishingly, the two judges that ruled that the doctors’ changed opinions were not new evidence argued that it would be a dangerous precedent to reopen cases just because previous witnesses decide to change their testimony. The lone dissenting judge, Rosemary Barkett, thought such procedural arguments were ridiculous. “The idea that courts are not permitted to acknowledge that a mistake has been made which would bar an execution is quite incredible for a country that not only prides itself on having the quintessential system of justice but attempts to export it to the world as a model of fairness,” Barkett wrote.
Hill’s case has garnered much attention over the years and people such as former President Jimmy Carter have called for his sentence to be commuted. The family of Joseph Handspike, the victim in the case, has even expressed concern about Hill’s mental condition and said that they do not wish for him to be executed but would rather he receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
It is outrageous that Hill’s execution will proceed despite the overwhelming evidence that it is in violation of the Constitution and goes against the wishes of the victim’s family. How is this justice?
(Photo courtesy of Birmingham Business Journal)
Timothy McKinney’s third capital trial began last week in Shelby County for the 1997 murder of Donald Williams, an off-duty Memphis police officer. The jury began deliberation yesterday and moments ago they came back and told the court that they were deadlocked. The judge has declared a mistrial.
The same thing happened at McKinney’s second trial exactly one year ago. Criminal Court Judge Lee Coffee declared a mistrial after jurors said they could not reach a unanimous decision. Their final vote was 11-1 for guilty of first degree murder.
In 2010, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals granted McKinney a new trial after determining that his representation at trial created “cumulative prejudice of such magnitude” that his right to a fair proceeding was prejudiced. The court stated, “there is reasonable probability that, absent their deficiencies, the outcome of both the guilt phase and the sentencing phase of the trial would have been different. The nature and extent of counsel’s deficiencies rendered the entire proceeding fundamentally unfair.”
McKinney has remained in jail without bond for the past year awaiting this third trial. It is unclear whether the state will seek a fourth trial.
For more background on this troubling case, check out this great article that recently appeared in The Nation.
(photo of Timothy McKinney (right) and defense attorney Gerald Skahan (left) by The Commercial Appeal’s Alan Spearman)
With our presentation set to begin at 6:00 p.m. at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga on Monday evening, Ray Krone and I were watching the clock as people continued to stream into the lecture hall. In a room that seats 180, we were up to about 250 folks crowding into the room. Chairs were brought in and with people lining the walls, the presentation finally began. The following evening on the campus of Lee University in Cleveland, TN, sixty students, professors, and others packed another lecture hall to hear from Ray.
This is the kind of reception that Tennesseans are giving to death row exonerees who have been traveling the state with TADP this spring. Citizens are eager to understand how innocent people are sent to death row and are appalled when they learn of all the problems with the current system that lead to such wrongful convictions–problems that are not being addressed. In total, Tennessee has released three individuals from death row when the charges against them were dropped or they were found not guilty in a new trial. A fourth man, Ndume Olatushani, was released in June 2012 when he took an Alford plea. This plea meant that Ndume agreed that it was in his best interest to plead guilty to a lesser charge, but only if he could maintain his total innocence at the same time, as he had from the beginning of his ordeal. With the Alford plea, Ndume walked out the doors of the Shelby County jail that day after serving 28 years (20 on Tennessee’s death row) for a crime the overwhelming evidence shows he didn’t commit.
The more Tennesseans learn about just how broken our system is, the more concerned they are about the continued use of the death penalty. We have a few more engagements with these exonerees planned for this spring and are now scheduling more for the fall.
Just as in Maryland which recently repealed its death penalty, the voices of these exonerees are changing the conversation about the death penalty and will only continue to do so as more and more citizens hear their stories. Thanks to all who attended these events, and we will keep you posted on future opportunities to hear from these exonerees who are living testaments to why we must end the death penalty.
Yesterday TADP staff and 27 supporters gathered at the Capitol for our annual Justice Day on the Hill. We spoke with over 20 state senators and representatives about our concerns and why Tennessee does not need the death penalty. Our meetings went well, and we were able to answer questions, provide information, and encourage our lawmakers to give serious thought to our flawed system.
Among those who participated were Paul House and Ndume Olatushani, two former Tennessee death row inmates who were wrongfully convicted. We also had murder victims’ family members with us as well, who shared their concerns about the death penalty and explained why they don’t believe it serves their families’ needs. Marc Hyden, an organizer with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of Equal Justice USA, also joined us to talk about why death penalty repeal is an issue that more and more conservatives are supporting.
Thank you to all of you who participated!
(Photo of TADP Executive Director Stacy Rector conducting a lobby training at the start of Justice Day)