Archive for June, 2010
In an article appearing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on June 21, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Norman S. Fletcher, reflects on the legacy of retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, specifically as it relates to the troubling case of Troy Davis.
Last August, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a federal district court to hold a hearing on the new evidence in the Davis case. Davis was sent to death row for the murder of Officer Mark MacPhail based solely on eyewitness testimony. Since his conviction, most of those witnesses have recanted their testimony, some saying that they were coerced. Several new witnesses have also come forward pointing to another suspect. In ordering this hearing Justice Stevens stated, “The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing.”
Judge Fletcher goes on to say that he served on the Georgia Supreme Court when the Davis appeal came before it in 1993. The court upheld Davis’ conviction. However, that appeal was made before several of the witnesses had recanted. Fletcher was not on the court when it rejected, by a 4-3 vote, Davis’ extraordinary motion for a new trial in March 2008. Fletcher states in the article, “The court did not order an evidentiary hearing. If I had been on that court, the vote might have been 4-3 the other way.”
He continues by saying that Justice Stevens leadership in ensuring a hearing for Troy Davis on the new evidence in this case is a victory for the idea that innocence does matter. I think most of us would agree with this notion, regardless of our feelings on the death penalty. Innocence matters–it matters more than procedure or arbitrary time frames for hearing new evidence. When the state is planning to take a person’s life, innocence always matters.
Thanks to Norman Fletcher for his willingness to speak out and to stand up, not merely for the letter of the law, but for the spirit of the law as well.
Read the article here.
A federal judge must now decide if the new evidence presented in hearings last week in the case of Troy Davis is enough to spare Davis from the death penalty. Of the nine witnesses who testified against Davis at his original trial for the murder of Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail, seven have recanted their testimony. One of those nine includes, Sylvester “Redd” Coles who some witnesses now say told them that he was actually the shooter.
Davis attorney, Jason Ewart, told Judge William T. Moore that Davis would not be convicted today by any reasonable juror who heard the new evidence presented last week. That evidence includes the recantations of four prosecution witnesses who earlier testified that they either saw Davis kill MacPhail or that Davis told them he did it. Those witnesses now say they were threatened and coerced into giving false testimony. Ewart also expressed confidence in Benjamin Gordon, a relative of Coles’, who testified for the first time on Wednesday that he witnessed Coles gun down MacPhail.
Earlier last Thursday, however, Judge Moore ruled out testimony from a number of witnesses who were going to say that Sylvester “Redd” Coles told them he, not Davis, shot and killed MacPhail. Since the defense did not choose to call Coles to testify, the Judge said that such testimony amounted to hearsay. “Here’s one of the most critical witnesses to Davis’ defense,” Moore said. “Mr. Coles is available to testify and you don’t call him. Mr. Coles should have been called by you.”
Judge Moore instructed the attorneys to file legal briefs by July 7 and said he would rule as promptly as possible.
Read the full story here.
The pain and untold suffering that a family member experiences when they lose a loved one to murder defies description. For many murder victims’ family members, the journey to find healing and peace in the midst of their tragedy is a long and hard road. This journey towards healing is also experienced within communities, as the collateral damage of murder effects even those outside of the families who have lost so much. This was the case of a faith community in New Jersey who experienced tragedy up close and personal within their own congregation. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, reporter William McGunn chronicles the journey of a wounded community as they search to find hope and healing.
read more here:
Yesterday, in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, a story ran announcing that the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church passed a resolution passed reaffirming the conference’s opposition to the death penalty and asking the Governor to spare Gaile Owens by commuting her sentence to life. TADP is particularly grateful to Nashville pastor, Rev. Brian Rossbert, who co-sponsored the resolution. Please contact TADP if your faith community would like to pass a similar resolution.
Read the story here.
(blog photo by J. Anderson)
For many religious leaders and people within the faith community, the dialogue around the death penalty is a hard one. Though many faith traditions have statements of opposition to the death penalty, some traditions support it. But, within every faith tradition, one will find a variety of individual perspectives. The Salt Lake City Tribune recently ran a story in connection with recent execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad in Utah. The article notes that the Mormon Church has moved from a position of support of the death penalty to one of neutrality. The article outlines the stances of a variety of faith traditions both for and against. It also points out that the current administration and application of the death penalty continues to struggle with issues of fairness and accuracy that should be considered regardless of one’s posture toward the morality of the death penalty.
To read more of the article read here:
Faith and the Death Penalty
Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), shares a thoughtful reflection that appears on The Huffington Post website concerning yesterday’s execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad in the state of Utah. Though this execution drew national media attention, the unusual method of execution does not change the fact that the death penalty is on the wane in the U.S., and more people are becoming aware of its systemic problems.
Read the full article here.
There is a misconception that all murder victims’ family members are for the death penalty. Many people believe that the death penalty serves the needs of family members. This is simply not the case. What is true is that murder victims’ family members have a multitude of real needs that are not being met, in part, because of the vast amounts of money currently wasted on the death penalty system, draining away resources that could be better spent on meeting those needs.
To read more about addressing the real needs of murder victims’ family members, please see the link below:
Debate: Death Penalty Only Hurts Victims’ Families
The Slow Death of the Death Penalty? was a segment featured on the CBS Sunday Morning Show that aired this Sunday, June 13. The segment briefly discusses the case of Ronnie Lee Gardner set to be executed by a firing squad on Friday in Utah but, the majority of the segment focuses on the problems with the death penalty as a public policy and the Gaile Owens’ case in particular. Gaile Owens appears briefly during the segment reading a portion of the letter that she wrote to Governor Bredesen concerning clemency.
Don Strother, assistant district attorney who prosecuted Gaile Owens is also interviewed. He referes to the case on the program, “I remember that it just seemed like a senseless killing.” He also states that he is not buying the “battered woman” defense. “You know, I think that’s something that’s being created at this time,” he said. “I have no sense that that’s, in fact, reality.”
However, at the time of her trial, Owens’ attorneys tried to get the court to give them the funds to hire an expert in order to determine if Owens was suffering from battered woman’s syndrome. The judge refused. However, the judge did allow for the customary examination at the local mental health clinic, where Owen’s competency to stand trial would be determined. And though the doctor who performed this evaluation was not told by the court, the prosecution, or the defense, to address whether Gaile suffered from battered woman’s syndrome , the doctor still noted that it was her impression that Gaile Owens was, in fact, a battered woman.
Strother also didn’t mention that the district attorneys’ office also failed to turn over love letters that Ron Owens, Gaile’s husband, exchanged with his mistress, providing evidence for Gaile’s allegations of her husband’s affairs.
The Nasville Scene reported that “While claiming he’d turned over everything in his possession to the defense, his statement was only half true, according to the testimony of one detective. Wray (Detective) would later testify Gala Scott (the mistress) asked that the love letters be returned to her. When Wray asked someone if he could return the letters — ‘to the best of my memory,’ he said, ‘it was General Strother’ — he was told the letters were immaterial. And so this key evidence was handed off.”
Again, this case is yet one more among many that demonstrate how unfair and arbitrary the current death penalty system is. Even the death penalty supporter interviewed for the story, Dr. Robert Blecker, acknowledges that the system is not perfect but is “a work in progress.”
A work in progress? When describing a public policy that allow the state to kill its own citizens, “a work in progress” is not good enough, particularly when alternatives like life without parole are available.
Newly elected TADP board member, Amy Sayward, and long-time TADP supporter, Margaret Vandiver, are the co-editors of the newly published book, Tennessee’s New Abolitionists. We are very excited about the book and encourage everyone to read it! All proceeds go to TADP.
Available for puchase here!
**From the back cover of Tennessee’s New Abolitionists
Seeking to illuminate Tennessee’s death penalty system and those who oppose it, this collection of essays combines a historical overview of efforts to abolish state killing in Tennessee with first-hand accounts from people involved in those efforts. Representing a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, the contributors include, among others, lawyers, academics, activists, religious leaders, and a former state supreme court justice.
Surprisingly, prior to this book, there has been no examination of capital punishment in Tennessee within the context of the larger national debate on the death penalty. While Tennessee has a death penalty system similar to those of many other southern states, only six people have been executed in the state since then, despite the overwhelming concentration of executions in the South.
The book includes essays covering such topics as Governor Frank Clement’s attempt to abolish the state’s death penalty in the 1960s, the troubling questions raised by mental illness and capital punishment, and coverage of several recent executions by Tennessee’s newspapers. The authors of the chapters in the final section, “Rarely Heard Voices,” include the father of a murder victim, four anonymous death row authors, Department of Correction officials, and the sisters of one of the men executed in the state. A provocative contribution to one of the signal debates of our time, this book illuminates the myriad ways in which the various forces involved in the controversy–from history, politics, and culture to individuals and organizations–have collided, intersected, and coexisted in Tennessee.
“One fine day when the death penalty is abolished in Tennessee, we’ll want to know how it happened. This book, edited by my good friends, Amy Sayward and Margaret Vandiver, will tell the story–in riveting detail.” —-Sister Helen Prejean
“The meaning of the admonition–four words most often forgotten, ignored or intentionally violated–seem so simple: ‘Thou shall not kill.’ Here nineteen essayists remind us that there have been those among us who understood the meaning–and who sought to give life to the law.”—John Seigenthaler
There is no question that greatly contributing to the brokenness of the death penalty system is the issue of racial bias. Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (80%) have been executed for killing white victims, although whites make up only 50% percent of all homicide victims. A North Carolina study, based on data from 502 murders occurring between 1993 and 1997 found that defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims. According to an article in today’s New York Times, racial disparity in the selection of jurors runs rampant in several Southern states. The criminal justice system is supposed to be color blind when it comes to race. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Read article here.
(Pictured: stained glass Lady Justice by Nanci Phelan)