Archive for November, 2011
On a 27-17 vote Monday night, the North Carolina state Senate approved Senate Bill 9, titled “No Discriminatory Purpose in the Death Penalty”, repealing the two year old Racial Justice Act. The bill now goes to Governor Bev Perdue’s desk.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009 over the objections of prosecutors and allows death-row inmates to petition judges to commute their sentences to life in prison without parole if they can show evidence of racial bias in their cases. Since then, district attorneys around the state have been leading the charge to repeal the law and they recently stepped up their campaign efforts because the first case is scheduled to be heard in January.
The Racial Justice Act was passed after the wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations of three black defendants. One of the exonerees was sentenced by an all white jury and the other two had only one black juror on each of their juries. In all three cases at least one of the victims was white.
A comprehensive study conducted by Michigan State University on capital sentencing in North Carolina showed that for the 159 people on North Carolina’s death row at the time, 31 of those defendants had all-white juries and 38 of them had only one person of color on their jury. In other words, more than 40% of the defendants on North Carolina’s death row were sentenced to death by a jury that included either one or zero persons of color. The study also found that statewide, prosecutors struck qualified black jurors at more than twice the rate at which they struck white jurors. In addition, it revealed that in cases with at least one white victim, a defendant is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if the case does not involve a white victim.
Racial bias has been and continues to be a factor in who receives a death sentence in this country and who does not. In the 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp decision, the U. S. Supreme Court acknowledged that though racial bias, particularly the race of the victim, affects the death penalty system, because McCleskey could not prove purposeful discrimination in his particular trial, there was no constitutional violation.
TADP urges Governor Perdue to veto SB9. We will keep you informed of any updates or actions you can take in support of maintaing this important statute in North Carolina.
Yesterday Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber issued a moratorium on all executions ahead of the state’s first execution in 14 years. Calling the death penalty “morally wrong,” Kitzhaber said there would be no executions while he was governor.
The governor said he has no sympathy for those who murder, but he stated that Oregon’s death penalty system is broken and not applied fairly. Since voters reinstated capital punishment in 1984, two people have been executed and both voluntarily waived their appeals.
“They were among the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor (in the 1990s) and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years,” Kitzhaber wrote in a prepared statement.
“The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not equally applied to all,” he said.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently closed its inquiry into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted for the murder-by-arson deaths of his three young daughters in 1991 and was executed in 2004. The Commission was told by the Texas Attorney General that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the Willingham case.
In its final report on the case on October 28, the Commission declined to issue any finding regarding allegations of negligence or misconduct by the City of Corsicana or the Texas State Fire Marshal. However, the Commission did acknowledge that unreliable fire science played a role in Willingham’s conviction. At the trial, arson investigators testified that the Willingham house fire was intentionally set using a liquid accelerant. Modern fire experts working for both the Commission and for the New-York based Innocence Project, which has been representing Willingham posthumously, have determined that none of the more than 20 arson indicators identified by those fire investigators in 1991 are reliable evidence of accelerant use. Experts say that the cause of fire should have been “undetermined.”
“The world should now know that the evidence relied upon to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham for the fire that killed his daughters was based on scientifically invalid and unreliable evidence,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project. “By any fair estimate, that indicates he was innocent, that he did not set that fire.”
The Commission’s final report also included a commitment from the state fire marshal’s office to review old arson rulings to determine whether other convictions were based on the now-debunked science. The Innocence Project of Texas will be working with the fire marshal’s office to identify and review old arson cases.
Though the investigation into Willingham’s case was forced to come to a close, hopefully the commission’s acknowledgements about the changes in scientific understanding of fire will help in getting at the truth in other arson cases and will reverse and prevent wrongful convictions.
Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr. made a film about the Willingham case called Incendiary. It is being released in select theaters throughout the country. Check out the film’s official site to learn more.
According to a recent Gallup Poll, opposition to the death penalty is at an all time high in this country. However, executions still continue with 39 already taking place this year. Five more are scheduled for 2011, with four of those scheduled to take place THIS week.
We urge you to take action to stop these executions. Regardless of whether or not these executions go forward, voicing your opposition reminds officials of the growing concerns in this country about the death penalty.
The scheduled executions are listed below, along with information on what you can do. The state links will take you to abolition efforts in the respective states.
November 15 in Ohio, Reginald Brooks
, Oba Chandler
, Guadalupe Esparza
- Contact Governor Rick Perry at the Opinion Hotline: (512) 463-1782 [for out-of-state callers] or (800) 252-9600 [for Texas callers] or contact him online
, Paul Ezra Rhoades
- Contact Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter at 208-334-2100 and Idaho Commission of Pardons and Paroles 208-334-2520
, Gary Haugen
- Sign this online petition to Governor John Kitzhaber and click here to sign a letter to the Governor
Photo by KQED News
Come out and join us as Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash takes the stage with her daughter Chelsea Crowell and Rodney Crowell as part of the third annual Generations Against the Death Penalty Benefit Concert to be held Monday, December 19. Proceeds from the event will go to Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and help us continue our work toward repeal.
The concert will also feature duets by Ranger Doug (of Riders in the Sky) and son, James Green; John Hiatt and daughter, Lilly Hiatt; and Gail Davies and son, Chris Scruggs.
The concert will be held at 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville on December 19, 2011 at 7:30 p.m. with doors opening at 6:00 p.m. Tickets are $30 for general admission and $75 for VIP which include Gold circle seating & two drink tickets. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
Mark Osler, professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota, wrote a compelling opinion editorial for CNN today on the deep emotional commitment of prosecutors to see a death sentence through even when there is untested DNA evidence and serious doubts about a defendant’s guilt, as in the case of Hank Skinner in Texas.
As a former federal prosecutor, such a commitment is not surprising to Osler, but it is quite concerning. He points out that although prosecutors go into the profession with good intentions of helping to keep dangerous people out of our communities, the political pressure and emotional overcommittment to win convictions can also prove to be a danger to our communities. When a prosecutor has chosen the death penalty path, there seems to be no looking back, no room for examining new information or evidence that could lead to a needed change of course. The result of such overzealousness is that potentially innocent people are being put to death in our name.
Osler also points out that being so hell-bent on proceeding with executions in the face of doubt is ironically not very in line with Texas’ religious-political climate. After all, he writes, “the very center of the Christian gospels themselves contain a dramatic warning against the dangers of overcommitted prosecutors.” Osler wrote a book on the subject entitled Jesus on Death Row, which challenges the death penalty based on the experience of Jesus as a criminal defendant. This has been turned into a play and will be performed at St. Henry’s Catholic Church in Nashville and at Carson Newman College in Jefferson City, TN, in the spring. More information on these events will be forthcoming.
Photo by: pasa~tiempo
According to a CNN report, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Hank Skinner on Monday afternoon, ruling that it needed time to review the state’s revised law on DNA testing.
The stay granted to Skinner is a positive sign considering the November 3 ruling by the Gray County court that denied Skinner’s appeal for the DNA testing.
Yesterday’s ruling, issued two days before Skinner’s scheduled execution, gives more time to Skinner’s defense team to convince the courts to investigate untested DNA evidence that would, according to Skinner’s lawyer, “resolve once and for all longstanding and troubling questions about the reliability of the verdict in his case.” While the ruling by the Court of Criminal Appeals does temporarily prevent the execution of Skinner, it does not guarantee that DNA evidence will be tested.
On the same day as this successful ruling for Skinner, another Texas death row prisoner, Duane Buck, was denied a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a story published in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen reported that the Court voted to deny Buck certiorari, a type of writ seeking judicial review, thus placing Buck’s fate back into the hands of the State of Texas. You may recall that in Buck’s sentencing trial, an “expert” was allowed to tell jurors that the defendant would be more dangerous in the future because he was black. Texas officials later refused to give Buck a new sentencing trial even though it gave such trials to six other men whose trials were similarly tainted by illegal racial testimony.
The majority on the court suggested that the expert witness Walter Quijano’s racist testimony was “bizarre and objectionable” but apparently not enough to warrant giving Buck a new sentencing trial. In the dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “today the Court denies review of a death sentence marred by racial overtones and a record compromised by misleading remarks and omissions made by the State of Texas in the federal habeas proceedings below. Because our criminal justice system should not tolerate either circumstance — especially in a capital case — I dissent and vote to grant the petition.” Although no date has been set, there will likely be a new execution date set for Buck in the near future.
Both of these rulings speak to the arbitrariness and inconsistency that exist within the death penalty system. As long as courts are unwilling to hear crucial evidence or appeal troubling rulings, it is unjust to allow the same court system to determine the life and death of the accused.
Yesterday a trial judge in Hank Skinner’s case again denied DNA testing, in spite of a new Texas law that took effect on September 1 that allows DNA testing of evidence even if the offender chose not to seek testing before trial. Skinner is scheduled to be executed next Wednesday, November 9. Radley Balko wrote an excellent piece in The Huffington Post yesterday about the grave injustices in Skinner’s case. Please sign this petition and pass around, and keep the conversation going about Hank Skinner and the problems with our capital punishment system that his case so clearly demonstrates.
A recent New York Times article highlights some of the problems with the application of the death penalty in the United States. It starts with the story of Manuel Valle, who spent 33 years on death row, and discusses whether such prolonged sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average death row inmate in this country spends over a decade awaiting execution, while many end up on death row well over 20 years. Although keeping individuals on death row for awhile is necessary in order to allow for the safety guard of an appeals process, the article points out that the U.S. stands apart from much of the rest of the world in the excessive amount of time our inmates are on death row.
Not only is living for years under the threat of imminent execution a form of psychological torment for the inmate, but it also takes a huge toll on victims’ families, and is very costly to states. The article goes on to explain that many of the death sentences that are imposed in this country are eventually overturned, though enormous amounts are spent attempting to maintain them. One study found that only five percent of the 5,826 death sentences from 1973 to 1995 were carried out in those years, and there was a 68 percent chance that death sentences in those years would eventually be overturned by the courts.
Although it seems contradictory that those on death row need and want time to appeal their cases but then argue that such a prolonged delay is cruel and unusual punishment, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer has argued that this seeming contradiction misses a larger point. In his dissent in Manuel Valle’s case, he wrote that our current system points to “the difficulty of reconciling the imposition of the death penalty as currently administered with procedures necessary to assure that the wrong person is not executed.”
This discussion demonstrates that we cannot have it both ways: executions cannot be rushed because in our fallible system, the risk of killing an innocent person would only increase. But we also cannot continue on our current path. Seeking a death sentence is extremely costly to taxpayers (especially when, as discussed above, the majority will not be carried out), and having death row inmates, their families, and the families of victims await an execution for decades is torturous to all parties. We must seek alternatives.
Photo by Mr. Thomas