Archive for December, 2011
Yesterday, the European Commission decided to restrict the export of thiopental or any barbiturates that can be used for “capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” This act by the European Union, in response to interventions and education by organizations like Amnesty International and Reprieve in the UK, is aimed directly at the United States and our states that still conduct executions.
Amnesty USA posted an article last week about the disturbing lengths states like Nebraska have gone to in order to obtain enough sodium thiopental (500 grams) for 166 executions, even though there are only 12 people on Nebraska’s death row. Naari, a Swiss-based drug company who the sodium thiopental was obtained from via a broker, is outraged that their product is going to be used for executions and have demanded it be returned to no avail.
The European Commission’s decision contributes to the wider European Union efforts to abolish the death penalty worldwide. This is a first step in response to the calls of advocacy organizations and the European Parliament to strengthen the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which states that no one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed. The Commission will carry out an in-depth review in 2012 and more drugs may be added to the list of prohibited exports.
Photo by Martin Rickett
It was a full house at Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley on Monday evening for TADP’s third annual concert, “Generations Against the Death Penalty.” The show started off with moving remarks from TADP’s Executive Director, Stacy Rector, and the celebration of Paul House’s 50th birthday. Paul is the 132nd person in the U.S., and the second from Tennessee, to be exonerated through DNA evidence. We were also thrilled to have Tennessee’s first exoneree, Michael McCormick, with us in the audience.
Two-time Grammy winner and yodeling wonder, Ranger Doug, and his son, James Green, played the first set of the evening. Next up was TADP board member and organizer of the event, Lauren Brown, singing with Lilly Hiatt. Lilly was then joined on the stage by her father, 11 time Grammy nominee, John Hiatt. The duo took turns singing with Gail Davies and her son, Chris Scruggs.
Finally, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and their daughter, Chelsea Crowell played an amazing set. At the end of the night, many of the artists returned to the stage for an encore and wonderful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Big River.”
A special thanks to everyone who came out for the event, the generous artists who supported TADP with their tremendous talents, and to 3rd and Lindsley for hosting the show. Also, a huge thanks to Lauren Brown, for organizing another successful concert!
Check out the CMT story on the show!
According to a new report released by the Death Penalty Information Center, death sentences and executions have reached their lowest levels since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1977.
The report states that there were 78 death sentences for murder convictions this year, as compared to the 315 death sentences given at the peak in 1996. This is the first year there have been less than 100 death sentences in 35 years.
In terms of executions, the 43 executions carried out in 2011 were roughly half as many executions as in 2000. Along with the sustained drop in overall numbers, executions seem to be concentrated in a few states. While Texas led with 13 executions this year, there were only 12 other states that also held executions this year. And since the reinstatement of the death penalty, Texas, Virgina, and Oklahoma account for more than half of the nation’s total executions.
The decreasing use of the death penalty, according to the report, is related to the “heightened awareness” around executing innocent women and men and the increasing availability of life without parole as a sentencing option. Also, with the elimination of the death penalty in Illinois and the moratorium in Oregon, the death penalty seems to be losing its appeal in the American judicial system.
Although the report states that “polls have consistently shown support for capital punishment remains strong, at 60 percent or higher,” when respondents are given the choice between death and life without parole, the support for the death penalty dramatically decreases.
A panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals recently overturned the murder conviction of Erskine Johnson, now known as Ndume Olatushani, who was sentenced to death in 1985 for killing a Memphis grocery store manager during a robbery. The court ruled that he should be given a new trial because of what appears to be faulty witness testimony.
Johnson’s death sentence was thrown out in 1999 after the appeals court found out about a police report that had been withheld from Johnson and his attorneys at the time of his original trial. The report found that Johnson could not have fired a bullet that grazed a 16 year-old bystander during the robbery. This injury was used by the state to establish one of the aggravating circumstances needed to sentence Johnson to death.
That same appeals court also reviewed other police reports that had been withheld from Johnson showing that his fingerprints did not match those that were removed from the getaway vehicle. However, they decided only to overturn his death sentence and not to grant him a new trial after concluding that there was enough other evidence against him that it was unlikely the jury would have come up with a not guilty verdict. The state Supreme Court upheld this ruling on appeal in 2001 and Johnson was later resentenced to life in prison.
Last week, the state appeals court decided Johnson deserved a new trial after considering the evidence previously presented combined with new evidence that Johnson’s cousin, Elizabeth Starks, may have had reason to lie when she placed him at the crime scene in her testimony. Starks had strong connections to people, who at one time, were considered suspects in the case. It is also worth noting that in his original trial, Johnson and several witnesses testified that he was in St. Louis attending his mother’s birthday party at the time of the shooting in Memphis.
We applaud this ruling giving Johnson a new trial. Given the questionable evidence used in his conviction, a new trial has been a long time coming. However, we are also saddened that the victim’s family must continue to endure a legal process in which finality has, to this point, proven illusive. We hope that this new trial will be fair and balanced, bringing legal finality to the case, and that all parties can move forward.
Photo by s_falkow
In late November we blogged that North Carolina’s Senate approved Senate Bill 9, which repealed the two-year old Racial Justice Act that allows death-row inmates to appeal their sentences based on statistical proof of racial bias. We are happy to report that today Governor Bev Perdue vetoed this bill.
Though she reiterated her support for the death penalty in a statement her office released late this morning, Governor Perdue added that “because the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, it is essential that it be carried out fairly and that the process not be infected with prejudice based on race. I signed the Racial Justice Act into law two years ago because it ensured that racial prejudice would not taint the application of the death penalty.”
Perdue’s statement also countered claims that have been made by the state’s prosecutors that a successful appeal under the Racial Justice Act would free inmates. In reality, if a judge determines racial bias was a significant factor to impose the death sentence, he or she must reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole.
A veto of the bill means Perdue will call back the Legislature by January to consider an override. We applaud Governor Perdue for vetoing this bill and preserving the needed Racial Justice Act. We hope that North Carolina’s legislature will sustain her veto.
Photo of Gov. Perdue by Takaaki Iwabu
After decades of scientific research on human memory has demonstrated the need for reform in the use of eyewitness evidence in criminal cases, courts are finally catching on. Last month in Perry v. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the validity of using eyewitness testimony for the first time in more than three decades. In an August ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court outlined greater scrutiny for eyewitnesses and stricter guidelines for police lineups.
Because the brain can’t easily retain many specific details and is highly susceptible to suggestion, scientists say that witness testimony should be viewed more like trace evidence, with the same fragility and vulnerability to contamination. “Memory is weak in eyewitness situations because it’s overloaded,” says Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor at Columbia University. “An event happens so fast, and when the police question you, you probably weren’t concentrating on the details they’re asking about.” About 75 percent of DNA-based exonerations have occurred in cases where eyewitnesses have made mistakes.
Researchers are trying to use their findings to make trials fairer and testimony more reliable instead of dismissing eyewitness accounts altogether. Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, found that the accuracy of lineups improves when the possible suspects are presented to witnesses in sequence, rather than all at once, as in the traditional lineup. The downfall of side-by-side lineups, Dr. Wells said, is that “if the real perpetrator is not in there, there is still someone who looks more like him than the others.” It also helps if the officer working with the witness doesn’t know who the suspect is, to avoid influencing the outcome. Wells says police should also tell witnesses it’s okay if they can’t pick a suspect out of a lineup.
TADP applauds these important reforms. As we have seen, eyewitness accounts can put a defendant away for a long time, or lead to their execution. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the recent execution of Troy Davis, where seven of the nine eyewitnesses in his case recanted after originally testifying that Davis murdered an off-duty Savannah, Georgia police officer in 1989.
Photo by Natalie Matthews-Ramo
A recent story by Politico interviews leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty and highlights the growing momentum toward repeal in states from Connecticut to California. Given the continued concerns about cost, fairness, and innocence, more and more citizens across the country are convinced that the system is not working.
A Gallup poll conducted just after Troy Davis was executed in September showed support for the death penalty falling to a 39-year low nationwide with 61 percent of Americans supporting capital punishment, a three point drop from 2010. Just over half of Americans, or 52 percent, said the death penalty is applied fairly, a six point drop in approval from last year.
As more people are presented with the overwhelming evidence of the system’s failings, we will see more states end the use of the death penalty, including Tennessee.
Today’s opinion section of The Tennessean features an opinion-editorial written by TADP Executive Director Stacy Rector about the important life, work and message of Martina Davis Correia, Troy Davis’ sister. Martina passed away a week ago today from breast cancer, just ten weeks after her brother was executed.
This photo of Martina courtesy of Amnesty International UK
The American Bar Association’s recent report on Kentucky’s death penalty system concludes that the state should suspend all executions immediately. The report highlights problematic issues within the state’s current system including a high rate of reversals, a lack of standards for attorneys handling capital cases, and few protections against executing those with mental disability.
“It is the Assessment Team’s unanimous view that so long as Kentucky imposes the death penalty, it must be reserved for the worst offenders and offenses, ensure heightened due process and minimize risk of executing the innocent,” the 438-page report said.
The ABA’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project has looked at eight states since 2001, including Tennessee. The Tennessee Assessment demonstrated that of 93 guidelines for a fair and accurate system, Tennessee fully complied with only 7.
Though the legislature created the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, a committee that met for 14 months, none of the committee’s recommendations have been implemented. During the committee’s tenure, Paul House became Tennessee’s second death row exoneree and the 132nd in the nation. Recently Gussie Vann became Tennessee’s 3rd and the 139th nationwide. In the modern era of the death penalty, Tennessee has executed six men, and, during the same time frame, has determined that three others were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.
Photo by OHzinOH
Last week Pope Benedict XVI made one of the strongest statements yet against the death penalty. Addressing delegations who were meeting in Rome to promote abolition, including a group from Illinois (the 16th state to abolish the death penalty), Pope Benedict applauded the groups’ work and said he hoped their efforts would “encourage political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.” He went on to say that their work will hopefully promote progress in penal law that speaks equally to “the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”
The Rome meeting of abolitionists was sponsored by the Sant’Egidio Community and encouraged people in cities around the world to join a public demonstration of opposition to the death penalty. The Colosseum was lit up on November 30 to show the city’s support for this initiative.
Look for more on this from the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) partner organization & Affiliate that has taken on responsibility for implementation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.