Archive for August, 2010
Since I have been on vacation for the past week–trying to get my mind off the death penalty for a while–we have missed several major news story in the death penalty arena.
Troy Davis: On August 24, nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a federal judge to review the evidence showing that Troy Davis did not commit the murder of off-duty police officer Mark Allan MacPhail, a federal judge in Georgia ruled against Troy Davis’ claims that he is innocent.
No murder weapon was ever uncovered nor any physical evidence connecting Davis to the shooting. Seven out of nine non-police witnesses who initially testified against Davis have since recanted their testimony–and several have said they were coerced by police into making false statements against Davis. One of the star witnesses against Davis, Sylvester “Red” Coles, has since been identified by other eyewitnesses as the actual shooter.
Still, U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. dismissed the appeal in a 172-page order stating, “After careful consideration and an in-depth review of 20 years of evidence the Court is left with the firm conviction that while the State’s case may not be ironclad, most reasonable jurors would again vote to convict Mr. Davis of Officer MacPhail’s murder.” Davis’ attorneys will likely appeal this ruling.
Billy Ray Irick: On August 21, Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner rejected Billy Irick’s assertion that he was not competent to be executed for the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Kay Dyer. Judge Baumgartner stated that, “This court finds that the evidence presented more than sufficiently establishes that (Irick) has the mental capacity to understand the fact of his impending execution and the reason for it. In addition, this court finds that the record establishes that (Irick) has a rational understanding of these facts and issues.” Sadly, a lifetime of medical history and witness statements concerning Irick’s mental state at the time of the crime demonstrate otherwise.
Faulty Lab Work in North Carolina: The criminal convictions of three people who have been executed in North Carolina, and four more cases of defendants now on death row, are in question because of shoddy lab work by the State Bureau of Investigation, according to a scathing report written by former FBI agents who examined the agency’s blood work.
The new report discusses “serious issues” with the SBI’s blood analysis unit’s work between 1987 and 2003 in cases involving 269 people. The work of the SBI lab in these cases is described as “overstated and misleading” and in some cases the lab left out critical information that would have been favorable to the defendants.
Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty in North Carolina stated, “The death penalty should be repealed on moral and practical grounds. We cannot have a death penalty applied within a system so deeply flawed every way you view it. We cannot have it both ways. The only solution is to repeal the death penalty and use the money that would save to help murder victims’ families and enhance programs aimed at preventing violent crime.”
With the clear problems with this system as demonstrated in the stories above, why do we continue to waste our resources and energy on it? How can we trust a system with so much dysfunction to determine who lives and who dies?
Picture courtesy of VaXzine
On Tuesday, August 17th, I lost a very good friend. Sumner County Sheriff Bob Barker died at his home in Gallatin, Tennessee. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer five weeks ago. Sheriff Barker was 55 years old.
For the last two years, I have been traveling the state meeting with members of Tennessee’s law enforcement community. I have had the privilege of meeting some of the most talented, dedicated, and professional men and women who literally put their lives on the line every day keeping our communities safe. Sheriff Barker was the epitome of a talented, dedicated, and professional law enforcement official. He loved his job. He loved his family. And he truly loved people, including those who resided in his jail.
Sheriff Barker fought for justice with a heart that was tempered with mercy. In conversations, he often shared with me his belief that people who make bad decisions should be held accountable but that they should also be given the opportunity to learn to make better decisions once they leave the jail. And, he shared his concern about the struggle of those with mental illness who are constantly in and out of jails around this state because they are not getting treatment. He was firm in his belief that an individual who suffers from the most severe forms of mental illness and commits a murder should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law but not executed.
On behalf of the staff of TADP and our Board of Directors, our heartfelt thanks to Sheriff Barker for the openness that he showed us and the support he gave us. We extend our sincerest condolences to the entire Barker family. Our love and prayers surround you. And from the bottom of my heart thank you, Sheriff Barker, for your friendship to me. It was and will always be an honor that I will carry all my days.
An article appears on the Knoxville News Sentinel site today entitled, “Death Row Inmate Makes Last Ditch Appeal” with the subtitle, “Irick claims he is too mentally ill to die for rape, murder of girl.”
Though this title may get the readers’ attention, it does little to help them understand the long, tortured history of Billy Ray Irick, who has suffered with severe mental illness since he was 6 years old.
There is no overstating the horror of this case–the rape and murder of 7-year-old, Paula Dyer. Her mother is quoted in this story and is understandably heartbroken and frustrated with the agonizing process of pursuing this death sentence for so many years.
But what is lacking in this article is the well-documented history of Irick’s battle with severe mental illness since childhood–his institutionalization in mental hospitals (as early as age 7 and throughout his life) and his obvious symptoms of psychosis at the time of the crime never mentioned by his attorneys at his trial. In fact, no mention was even made of his severe mental illness until his sentencing hearing.
What is also missing, except in passing, is Irick’s history of babysitting the Jeffers’ children, of living with the Jeffers’ family, and his lack of memory of what happened that night in the throes of a psychotic state.
Now psychiatrists say that Irick is functioning on the level of a 7-9 year old child. The prosecution argues that he is competent because he knows he is own death row, and he knows why. I would argue that a child could also know the answers to such questions but would still not be competent to be executed by the state. In fact, executing a juvenile is unconstitutional. Just because someone can answer “yes” to such basic questions does not mean that they also don’t hear voices, see things that aren’t there, or experience episodes of memory loss–all symptoms of severe mental illness.
This case is tragic from every angle and would only be made more tragic if the state of Tennessee executed a man who has struggled his whole life with an illness that was never adequately treated. The vast majority of people with severe and persistent mental illness are not violent, but obviously, it happens. Anyone who has had a family member or friend to suffer from a similar illness understands not only the difficulty of getting treatment but the continued lack of understanding of mental illness in our society.
I often feel like a broken record, but I will ask the question again, “When will we stop spending exorbitant amounts of money pursuing death for people like Billy Ray Irick and instead spend the money to treat them before they hurt people?” In a time of lean budgets, is our state better off executing Irick or providing mental health treatment to keep such violence from happening in the first place?
Executing Irick changes nothing. Using our resources to help prevent other Billy Iricks from acts of violence and to support families like the Jeffers does.
Photo provide by Nanci.phelan
A standing room only crowd filled the Station Inn on Wednesday evening to attend TADP’s second annual show, “Generations Against the Death Penalty.” The line-up featured 11 time Grammy nominee John Hiatt and his daughter, Lilly Hiatt; Ranger Doug and his son, James Green; Gail Davies and her son, Chris Scruggs; and Gary Nicholson with his son, Luke Nicholson.
The variety of music and the artistic range provided something for everyone and left us all wanting more! A special thanks to the generous artists who supported TADP with their tremendous talents and to the Station Inn for hosting the show. Also, a big shout out to TADP board member, Lauren Brown, who organized the hugely successful event and who gave us a little sampling of her musical talent as well! And, thanks to James Staub for providing the photo.
We hope that you will make plans to attend next year’s show and continue to support the work of TADP.
For the second year in a row, artists, fans and activists will gather together in support of the abolition of Tennessee’s death penalty. This year’s “Generations Against the Death Penalty” will host a soon-to-be classic theme of generational duets, thus demonstrating that death penalty repeal is not a single-generation issue but one that affects us all.
TADP will receive the proceeds from this event and is proud and grateful to be honored by a round-stage performance from duets’ John Hiatt and daughter, Lilly Hiatt; Ranger Doug and son, James Green; Gail Davies and son, Chris Scruggs; and Gary Nicholson and his son, Luke Nicholson.
John Hiatt will bring his Americana air as the winner of the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting and his 11 time Grammy nomination. His daughter, Lilly, from Lilly Hiatt and the Dropped Ponies will play as his duet partner. Gail Davies, one of Nashville’s most iconoclastic performers and Nashville trailblazing son, Chris Scruggs, will be a power duet you have to see! You will be graced by the yodeling wonder of two-time Grammy winner Ranger Doug, from Riders in the Sky, and the sonorous voice of his son James Green from Sweetbriar and Chelsea Crowell. And with the final duet package, you will be treated to the extraordinary talent of Gary Nicholson and his son, Luke Nicholson.
You don’t want to miss this opportunity to see these generational duets together on stage working to fight the long-broken system of the death penalty. Join us in the cause of abolition of the death penalty on Wednesday, August 11th at 8:00 pm at the Station Inn. Doors open at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $10 or $50 for VIP and may only be purchased at the door.
A huge “THANK YOU” to TADP board member, Lauren Brown, for organizing this amazing event!
Hector and Susie Black are farmers from Cookeville, Tennessee, and have long been supporters of the work of TADP. Hector is a member of TADP’s speakers bureau called Sharing Our Stories: Murder Victims’ Families Speak (S.O.S.) and regularly speaks to groups around the state. I have heard Hector share the heartbreaking story of his daughter’s murder before, but when I heard it recently, I was moved as powerfully as the first time I ever heard it.
A small group of us were gathered at the home of Paul and Joyce House for some additional speakers training. Paul spent nearly 23 years on Tennessee’s death row until new evidence demonstrated his wrongful conviction. Joyce is Paul’s mother and his fiercest advocate. In the room that day were people who lives had all been directly impacted by the death penalty. Some, like Hector, had lost loved ones to murder. Others had loved ones who had been executed. And others had spent time on death row. This was the group to whom Hector stood to tell his story.
When I do presentations around the state, I am sometimes asked how I would feel if someone I loved was murdered. I try to answer the question as honestly as I can when I say, “I don’t know.” I don’t think any of us knows what our response would be to something so devastating. I hope, and I pray daily that my response would be like that of the Blacks or of others I know who have traveled the painful journey toward forgiveness and ultimately received the gift–for that is what it is. The journey looks differently for everyone, and some may not get there in this life, but I believe it is indeed a gift that God longs to give to us all. And as my friend Charlie Strobel, whose mother was murdered in Nashville, says, “It is, in fact, a miracle.”
Some confuse forgiveness with condoning or forgetting what someone has done in the act of murder. I don’t agree. One can forgive while still demanding accoutability for someone who commits murder through life sentences that keep violent individuals confined and society protected. What forgiveness is about for me is freeing the one who is doing the forgiving from the bitterness and hate that can consume us when we have been so terribly hurt, and, at the same time, giving us the ability to keep living ourselves.
Forgiveness is a gift that allows us to say “no” to more violence and hatred, the very tendencies that led to the murder in the first place. And, I believe the act of forgiveness would honor my loved one’s life in a far more profound way that an act of death ever could. I could go on trying to explain my understanding of forgiveness, what it is and what it is not, but Hector can say it better than me through his story.
I hope that you will take a few minutes to listen to Hector tell his story through StoryCorps. In this story, you will hear how a devoted father struggled with his anger and profound loss while at the same time experiencing the profound freedom that comes through the miracle of forgiveness. Thank you, Hector and Susie, for your profound witness and for honoring Patricia’s life in such a beautiful way.
Hear Hector’s story here.
One year ago, the state of North Carolina took a bold step in confronting the racial bias at work in their death penalty system by passing the Racial Justice Act. This legislation passed in order to better ensure that no person would be executed because of racial bias in North Carolina.
This week, five death row inmates in that state have asked the courts to change their death sentences to sentences of life without parole. All can prove that race played a key role in their trials.
The cases are supported by three new comprehensive studies of the death penalty in North Carolina. One of the new studies, from Michigan State University, shows that prosecutors in capital trials used peremptory strikes to exclude eligible blacks from juries at more than twice the rate that they excluded whites. Of the 159 inmates now on death row in North Carolina, 31 were sentenced by all-white juries, and another 38 had only one minority on their sentencing juries.
Two more studies, one from Michigan State University and one from the University of Colorado, show that those who convicted of killing whites are more likely to get the death penalty than those who are convicted of killing blacks. The MSU study found that a defendant is 2.6 times more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim is white. The UC study found that a defendant is 2.96 times more likely to get a death sentence if the victim is white.
The findings echo previous North Carolina studies as well as studies nationwide. In all five of the North Carolina cases now testing the new law, the victims were white and the defendants were minorities. In all five cases, prosecutors struck eligible blacks from the juries at far greater rates than eligible whites. And, in several cases, prosecutors rejected eligible black jurors even while accepting similar white jurors. Three of the defendants were sentenced by all-white juries, and in other cases, only one or two minorities sat on the juries — even in Martin County, where nearly half the population was black.
The Racial Justice Act went into effect on August 11, 2009. Kentucky is the only other state with similar, but less comprehensive, legislation.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said when she signed the act that it “ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals, the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”
The problems in North Carolina are also reflected in Tennessee. On June 1, 2010, the Eqaul Justice Initiative (EJI) released a new report, “Illegal Racial Discriminatino in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy,” which is the most comprehensive study of racial bias in jury selection since the United States Supreme Court tried to limit the practice in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986.
During two years of research in eight southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee), EJI interviewed over 100 African-Americans who were excluded from juries based on their race and reviewed hundreds of court documents and records. Appellate courts in each of the these states–with the exception of Tennessee, whose appellate courts have NEVER granted relief based on a Batson claim in a criminal case–have been forced to recognize the grave problems with racial bias in jury selection.
Photo by elmac.net
The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently found that arson investigators used flawed scientific evidence which resulted in the death sentence and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was convicted in 1992 of setting the fire that killed his 3 children.
Ironically, new fire investigation standards were developed the same year that Willingham was convicted. However, several years passed before the standards were adopted nationwide. Given these facts, the Commission did not find negligence on the part of the investigators but that does not change the fact that Willingham was sent to his death based on flawed science, though he maintained his innocence throughout his ordeal.
His cousin, Patricia Cox, told the Commission, “Even though there may not have been any malice or intent by fire investigators about not being informed on current standards, that does not excuse the fact that based on misinformation, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, and that can’t be corrected.”
Yet, we continue to put our faith in the death penalty when viable alternatives exist that are less costly and don’t risk killing an innocent person. Just this month, a new law has gone into effect in Tennessee adding yet another aggravator to the 15 Tennessee already has on the books, making a person eligible for the death sentence if they meet one of these now 16 aggravating factors. The law, HB2693, adds the murder of a pregnant woman to the list of aggravating factors to be considered in seeking the death penalty in first-degree murder cases.
No one questions that murder is horrific, regardless of who is murdered, how they are murdered, or why they are murdered. Murder is an egregious, irreversible act that robs someone of his/her life as well as the person’s family and the community as a whole. We do not question that murderous acts must be condemned and that those who murder must be called to account. What we question is the state’s making the same choice to kill, with all the known and well-established flaws in the death penalty system, and taking the risk of executing an innocent person when alternatives like life without parole are available.
One case like Cameron Todd Willingham’s is one too many, but sadly, there are many more than his. To date 138 people, including 2 from Tennessee, have been released from death rows after evidence of their wrongful convictions emerged–and those are only the ones we know about. We don’t know how many innocent people have been executed in our country since the reinstatement of the death penalty.
If Cameron Todd Willingham had received life without parole, the state of Texas would now have the opportunity to begin to address the injustice done to him. But he didn’t. Just as with any murder, there is no righting this wrong either, no balancing the scales. We, as a people, as a nation, are better than this.
Photo of oil painting by artist, Kate MacDonald, of Willingham’s last meal.