Archive for September, 2006
Thank you to all of you who made calls to the Governor and the Head of TDOC when you received TCASK’s email Abolition Update last week. As you know, Paul Gregory House had been moved to Deberry Special Needs Prison, where he is denied visitors, denied a wheelchair, did not receive a bath or a tooth brush for over a week, and was unable to call his mother. As if this wouldn’t be a bad enough way to treat people convicted of crime, it is made all the worse by the fact that Paul House is innocent!
But Paul was finally allowed to call his mother Joyce this weekend. The attendants brought the phone in and said, “Call your mother.” So some of our phone calls finally made it through. And Paul called from the wheelchair that he had finally been provided!
Now he is still in Special Needs, which is not ideal. When he called his mom he had to ask her what day it was, since he has no watch, no tv, and no way to stay connected to the outside world. And his MS still goes largely untreated. All the more reason, given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that no reasonable juror would have found him guilty, that Paul House needs to be released immediately and Tennessee needs to admit its near fatal mistake.
But once again, the hard work of TCASK volunteers made a difference, so thank you. Together we can get Paul House a wheelchair, we can get him home to his mother, and we can end the inhuman practice of capital punishment in our state once and for all.
I have some good news, and I have some bad news. The good news is that things are happening in the abolition movement all across the country and right here in Tennessee! People are getting exonerated, issues are being raised, cases are being examined – it’s an exciting time! The bad news is that I can’t possibly keep the blog adequately up to date with detailed entries and still do the work to make some things happen right here in Tennessee!
So today is link day! I want to simply point toward some other resources for folks to check in on a number of issues:
- As many of you are aware, challenges to the use of lethal injection procedures have created de facto moratoria in a number of states starting with California. Extensive hearings regarding that state’s lethal injection procedures are beginning this week. Read about them here.
- Some of you may have followed the case of Corey Maye in Mississippi (brought to light by a blogger). Corey, while not exonerated, is currently off death row. You can read about this stunning development as well as background on the case at the NCADP Blog.
- The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission will hold its third public hearing today beginning at noon. You can listen to it live here.
- Donnie Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed right here in Tennessee despite strong evidence of his innocence, has filed new appeals in federal court. There will be more to come on Johnson’s case very shortly, but you can read about the current pleas here.
We at TCASK have some exciting events coming up as well. Tonight, Reverend Stacy Rector and I will be heading out to Dyersburg to speak at an Episcopal church there, and tomorrow I get to accompany Hector Black to Dickson to speak at a house party to kick off our organizing work there. So keep reading, stay informed, and keep up the good work! We’ll try to do the same.
For those of you still wondering what is going on in the Daryl Holton case, the Federal Public Defenders who are representing Holton have filed their brief with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court. The brief makes a number of arguments far too complex for me to go into (or really to comprehend) but here goes my limited understanding.
When an inmate is attempting to drop his appeals and there are questions regarding his mental competency, attorneys are expected to demonstrate reasonable cause to believe that the person is mentally ill. This can be done by testimony of attorneys demonstrating that the client has not been able to understand or engage with them regarding the issues of his case; testimony from family members regarding suicidal motivations; or testimony from mental health experts. In the case of Daryl Holton, his attorneys presented all three, when one of the above has been seen as demonstrating reasonable cause in other cases. In the case that reasonable cause is found, an adversarial hearing should ensue. That is, Holton’s attorneys would be allowed to produce evidence and witnesses testifying to his incompetency, while the state produces evidence of his competence.
But this isn’t what happened in Holton’s case. While Holton’s attorneys presented all the above evidence, the district court refused to rule on whether reasonable cause had been demonstrated and instead ordered that its own expert evaluate Holton and then present his findings to the court. The court even refused to allow Holton’s attorneys access to the expert or his raw data. In other words, the court added a new hurdle for Holton to clear, just out of the blue!
Additionally, Holton never said in court that he wanted to dismiss all his claims, only some of them, yet the court went ahead and ruled that he wanted to forfeit all his claims anyway!
Hopefully the U.S. Sixth Circuit will have sense enough to see the merits of these arguments. And, on a more fundamental level, hopefully our state will see that claiming that a man who clearly suffers from mental illness is competent is an exercise in injustice!
Read the entire brief here.
This morning, in my email box, I received an interesting piece from North Dakota regarding a local bishop coming out and publicly condemning a death sentence being handed down in North Dakota. One great quote I’d like to share:
“Responding to this senseless act of violence with another act of violence through imposition of the death penalty does not erase the hurt caused by the first act,” he [Bishop Samuel Aquila] contended. “Rather, it reinforces the false perspective of revenge as justice. In doing so, it diminishes respect for all human life, both the lives of the guilty and the innocent.”
You can read the full article, “Bishop Opposes Death Sentence in North Dakota,” here. It is worth the read and the bishop makes a number of terrific points.
A really knowledgable and observant person, when reading the title of the article, might have stopped and said, “Wait a minute! They don’t have a death penalty in North Dakota!” and they’d be absolutely right (don’t feel bad if this person wasn’t you, it wasn’t me either and this is my job). North Dakota’s voters have decided, wisely, that they don’t need the death penalty. So then how is Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. facing his execution in North Dakota? The answer . . . the federal death penalty!
The federal government has the right to prosecute people in federal trials and seek the death penalty even if they state in which the crime was committed does not impose the death penalty. Thus, the feds feel they have the right to step in and take the decision of whether or not to use the death penalty out of the hands of the citizens whose taxes pay for the system. The federal death penalty can even be applied for crimes that do not involve murder. And, of course, it should come as no surprise that the person being charged is a person of color. Federal death row demonstrates an even greater racial bias in sentencing than other death rows across the country. It seems to me that if the people of a state have made the choice to reject capital punishment as a public policy tool, the federal government should respect that choice and not override the democratic process.
You can learn more about the federal death penalty here.
With the execution of Daryl Holton looming less than 36 hours away, we at TCASK hit the phones on Sunday evening, calling supporters around the state to ask them to call the Governor and ask him to stop the mockery of justice about to occur. If you’re reading this, you may have gotten a phone call on Sunday from one of our callers.
We had some of our terrific TCASK stalwarts making calls, and I’d like to tip my hat to James, Harry, and Michelle who’ve done so much for TCASK, but the majority of the calls where made by my youth group from Holy Name Catholic Church; in my spare time, I serve as the youth minister of that parish. This group of 13-17 year olds came with their cell phones and youthful energy to stop an execution. Now, I’m not saying that they were all thrilled about the process. I know that a few of them were nervous about calling people, some had homework, and some are teenagers who don’t like to be asked to do anything. But I will say that they got started and then they went above and beyond the call. Not only did they get through all the phone lists that we had, they started making calls to their personal acquaintances to get them to call the Governor as well. One young man texted every person in his phone with the message for the Governor.
On Wednesday morning I went to morning Eucharist. I ran into two brothers from my youth group there.
“Did the execution go through?” one asked me. I told him that it hadn’t.
“I knew it wouldn’t,” he said proudly.
The mother of three other teens was at mass. Afterwards she stopped me and told me that she came home from work on Monday after the stay had been issued and was told, “Mom, we saved that man’s life!” Her son had put Daryl Holton’s name into his school prayer intentions that day. They had gotten home from phone banking and kept calling people that they knew.
Another girl, only 14 years old, put so much passion into her calls I thought she might cry. “We’re begging people to call the Governor to save a life!” I heard her say into the phone.
None of these kids had ever been particularly involved with the death penalty issue before. They aren’t social activists generally. But to see them take action like this was inspiring. I was proud, as a TCASK Associate Director, but even more as a youth minister. Passion like that is impressive, and their contribution shouldn’t be overlooked. So thank you, Holy Name Youth Group, from all of us at TCASK, but thank you especially for myself. It’s a privilege to work with you all.
The Shelbyville Times Gazette has been the home paper for two recent Tennessee near execution, of Daryl Holton and Gregory Thompson, and consequently has done a lot more coverage than most. There’s a very interesting piece in today’s edition, by Clint Confehr. For a taste:
Oh, yes, the legal system grinds along as competing interests argue whether death is a suitable punishment for some crimes, but there are a number of people who are affected by the adversarial system and whose daily lives are adjusted by the on-again, off-again nature of the death penalty system in America.
I have been one of them because it’s my job to write news about the justice system and my assignment yesterday was to watch Holton die. I don’t shirk the responsibility, but wouldn’t do it if I didn’t see it as part of the job.
It’s an interesting piece and, I think, an issue that’s often overlooked – the effect of executions on all the people involved, from prison guards, to witnesses, to general citizens, to Governors who have to sign death warrants.
Read the entire piece here
The death penalty is racist. There are no two ways about it. People of color are singled out for prosecution far more often than whites under similar circumstances. A quarter of all African-American death row inmates were sentenced by all white juries, including, in Tennessee, three men in Shelby County which is nearly half black. Even more insidiously, the capital punishment system functions under the assumption that the life of a white person is more valuable than that of a person of color. How? A person accused of murdering a white person is four times as likely to be sentenced to death than a person accused of murdering an African-American person. While whites represent less than half of all murder victims nationally, over 80% of death row inmates were convicted of the murder of a white person.
With all this in mind, forging meaningful and trusting relationships with organizations representing people of color and working hard to truly become an anti-oppressive and anti-racist organization is absolutely essential for us, if our struggle to end an immoral public policy is to succeed. And that is why I am so thrilled that I have been invited to speak at the NAACP state-wide convention tomorrow! The leadership of the NAACP, both the state-wide organization and the Memphis, Nashville, Jackson, and Carroll County branches that I have been privileged to meet with, is made up of wonderful people, committed to social justice, who view the death penalty as a human rights issue and recognize that it must be stopped! I’m looking forward to continuing to deepen our cooperation as we move toward a state-wide moratorium in the next legislature. Together, we can all do it!
The ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project is currently in the process of doing state-by-state assessments of capital punishment systems. This week, the Florida study was released. The report is an indictment of the system, chastising many flaws (Florida is the state with the dubious distinction of having the most people exonerated from its death row- 21 to date). The study finds numerous areas of failure in Florida’s system and calls for a number of reforms to be implemented.
You can read the full report here although I’d stick with the Executive Summary, it’s a very long report.
The ABA is currently working on an assessment of Tennessee’s capital punishment system which should be released by the end of the year. While we don’t have the shocking exoneration record of Florida, we know that we have innocent people on death row right here in Tennessee (think of Paul House or the case of Erskine Johnson, no longer on death row but still in prison for a crime he did not commit). We know that our system fails to provide adequate counsel for indigent defendants just as regularly. We know, with the recent near execution of Daryl Holton and Paul Dennis Reid, that our system fails to properly understand and protect people suffering from mental illness from execution. And we know that race plays a major role in death sentences here just like everywhere else.
So when the ABA releases its assessment of Tennessee this fall/winter, we have to be ready. We’ll be watching Florida to see how abolitionists use the assessment to further strategic work toward a moratorium in their state, so that we can do as well, or even better. So read the Florida assessment if you have a chance, and get ready for Tennessee’s. It will provide a unique opportunity for us to educate the public and our policy-makers about the deadly flaws in our death penalty system.
I’ve done two fairly long call-in talk radio interviews this morning, one of WNOX and one on WGNS, and so many of the same points came up from callers, and even from hosts, that I just had to talk about them. Because it is the same old arguments of deterrence, cost, and the Bible that come up over and over again. I guess people really think that the death penalty deters murder, saves tax-payer money, and is sanctioned by the Bible. So here we go, for the record:
- No respectable study has found the death penalty to deter murder to any extent greater than life without parole does. In fact, states without the death penalty have lower murder rates (by a large margin) than state with the death penalty. When the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972 we didn’t see an increase in murder rates across the country, and when execution resumed in 1977 we didn’t see murder rates drop. Additionally, in Tennessee, the only possible sentences for capital murder are death, life without the possibility, or a life sentence with a minimum of 51 years before parole eligibility. Eliminating the death penalty will not put people convicted of murder back out on the streets.
- Systems with the death penalty have consistently been found to cost far more than systems with LWOP as the most severe sentence. The majority of the extra costs are found in the initial trial, which has to include a whole separate phase for sentencing in capital cases. New Jersey just did a study of their capital punishment system and found that they had spent $253,000,000 above and beyond the cost of LWOP on it. And here’s the kicker, NJ has only 10 people on death row and has never executed anyone. Imagine what we’ve spent on a death row of 102 and two executions.
- And finally, yes, there are a few isolated passages of the Bible that seem to support capital punishment, but they support it not only for murder but also for adultery, planting different crops side by side, working on the Sabbath, disobeying your parents, and drunkenness. Additionally the Book of Deuteronomy states that it is a sin to execute without two eye witnesses giving exactly matching testimony. Not many of our death sentences would meet that standard. Finally, the overall message of the Bible and particularly of Jesus, is one of love, compassion, and forgiveness, a message that is incompatible with the vengeful killing of the death penalty.
Now a lot of you probably already knew that, but, given the number of times I’ve heard those arguments advanced just this morning, I decided that I had to get the answers out in the open again. So the next time some one raises one of those arguments, just let them have it (rhetorically) with some of the facts above. Because the great thing about working for abolition is that all of the facts are with us!
Yes it is. The sky is blue, their were birds chirping at my window, and, even if I was up at 5:45 to do an hour long, call-in, talk radio show on WNOX Knoxville (man there are some angry people calling stations early in the morning) the fact that I had gotten to go to sleep at a reasonable hour and Tennessee didn’t commit any homicides in the night made it all worthwhile.
As many of you probably already know, the U. S. Supreme Court refused to lift the stay issued by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals last night. This decision didn’t come as much of a surprise, but it did finally allow Daryl Holton to me moved off of death watch and back to his cell, ending any speculation that the execution might occur sometime today.
To clarify the events of yesterday, the Sixth Circuit issued a stay of execution and has ordered that briefings be presented by Holton’s attorneys and the state regarding his mental competency. The court has also requested that Daryl Holton inform it as to whether he wants the line of appeals to continue. You can read all the orders and motions here. But for us, as abolitionists, the bottom line is that Daryl Holton will not be executed today.
What we should remember is that a man with clear and diagnosed mental illness came within 12 hours of being executed. Clearly our capital punishment system continues t fail to understand mental illness, and in fact to target people suffering from mental illness for execution. Daryl Holton is only the latest in a number of mentally ill men, including Greg Thompson and Paul Dennis Reid, who have been scheduled for execution this year. Though Holton is still alive, our capital punishment system lives also, though it is obviously broken. We need to act now before more people with mental illness are targeted for execution.