Archive for January, 2012
Last night, TADP staff along with Tennessee exonerees Michael McCormick and Paul House, attended the sold-out screening of a new documentary film, West of Memphis, at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. This was the documentary’s first post-Sundance Film Festival showing.
The documentary examines the case of the famed West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, James Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. – friends in eastern Arkansas convicted of the 1993 brutal murders of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts and friends Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers. Echols received a death sentence, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences. The three served 18 years in prison and then in 2010, after much publicity and celebrity support, the defendants got new hearings from the Arkansas Supreme Court when defense lawyers pointed to new DNA evidence that implicated others. The men were released this past August on the rarely used Alford plea, which allows them to maintain innocence while acknowledging that there is enough evidence for convictions.
In addition to showing the unfolding relationship between Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, who helped in the long struggle to free the men, the film takes a hard look at the faulty confessions and physical evidence that were used to convict the three teenagers, as well as the lives of the victims’ families in the aftermath of the murders and the trial. Two of the victims’ parents, who believe the three men were not involved in the murders of their sons, attended last night’s screening. Also present were James Baldwin, the defense attorneys, as well as Echols and Davis, who were co-producers of the documentary. They all took questions from the crowd after the screening along with the film’s director, Amy Berg.
Though the West Memphis Three are now free, they are still awaiting justice. The Alford plea closes the case, but does not exonerate the men. This deal not only keeps the murders on their record, but it also keeps the state from finding the real killer. Please take action now. Sign this petition urging Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe to fully pardon the three men based on their innocence.
(Photo credit: Jeanne Reasonover of The Tennessean. Before the showing of West of Memphis at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville on Thursday are: Amanda Hobbs, left; Pam Hobbs, mother of victim Stevie Branch; Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three and also a producer of the documentary; Amy Berg, West of Memphis director; John Mark Byers, adoptive father of victim Christopher Byers; Lorri Davis, Echols’ wife and another producer; and Jason Baldwin, another of the West Memphis Three.)
After nearly five years of legal battles, Joe D’Ambrosio of Ohio has become the 140th person released from death row nationwide when his 1989 murder conviction and death sentence were thrown out by the courts.
In 2006, the court ruled that the prosecutors in D’Ambrosio’s trial withheld crucial evidence that “‘would have substantially increased a reasonable juror’s doubt of D’Ambrosio’s guilt.’” While the court decided to vacate the charges against D’Ambrosio and released him on bail, the state continued to seek a retrial, until a federal District Court ruled in 2010 that the state could no longer pursue prosecution. The US Supreme Court’s refusal to hear any further appeals from the prosecutors confirms the lower courts rulings on D’Ambrosio’s wrongful conviction.
The increasing number of death row exonerees casts an ominous shadow on the legitimacy of the death penalty. If so many individuals have languished on death row for years like Joe D’Ambrosio with evidence finally convincing a court of their wrongful convictions, how many more people with questionable convictions are still sitting on death row waiting to be executed?
Tennessee now has three individuals released from death row after decades fighting their wrongful convictions. These three are counted who are among the 140 nationwide. Tennessee has executed six people since 1960 and has released three individuals since 2000 because of new evidence demonstrating their wrongful convictions.
Is this the sign of a system that is working? Given that Tennessee has alternatives like life or life without parole that are less expensive, hold offenders accountable, and do not risk the execution of an innocent person, why do we continue to trust such the system has the ability to get it right?
Photo courtesy of Lynn Ischay
On Wednesday, January 25, at 8:30 pm Lipscomb University will host a screening of Incendiary: The Willingham Case.
This documentary explores the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for the Texas arson murder of his three children. With the case raising troubling questions about forensics and the death penalty, the makers of Incendiary
call the film “equal parts murder mystery, forensic investigation, and political drama.”
will be shown in Lipscomb’s Ward Hall
, on the Belmont Boulevard side of campus. A brief discussion will follow the screening and will be moderated by David Dark, Lipscomb professor and author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything.
Joining Dark will be panelists Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; attorney Chris Minton; and Charlie Strobel, founding director of Room in the Inn. We hope that you can make it to this free, public event!
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie,
nor establish the truth.
Through violence you murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness
to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that for first time in almost half a century, homicide has fallen off of the list of the nation’s top 15 causes of death. One reason suggested in this Associated Press article is increased prevention, in the form of action against domestic violence. Some also credit better police work and public health programs aimed at reducing violence. Changing demographics are also an important factor, as the largest segment of the population is now 50 and older. One thing is certain, however: the rarely used and randomly applied death penalty is not the reason for the decline in the U.S. homicide rate.
Opening Friday, January 6 at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre is Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, a powerful documentary that examines a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, and “probes the human psyche to explore why people kill—and why a state kills.” On Sunday, January 8, following the 2:30 p.m. screening of the film, The Belcourt will host a FLiCX (Faculty Led Interactive Cinematic Explorations) discussion, led by Dr. Randy Spivey from Lipscomb University.
Today, Nashville Scene published a story about their interview with Herzog, whose recent films include Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man. Herzog’s latest documentary consists of conversations with those involved in a senseless crime in which several people were killed just to get access to a car. This includes a conversation with 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry, who was scheduled to die just eight days after his interview with the filmmaker. Through these conversations, Herzog achieves what he describes as “a gaze into the abyss of the human soul.” He also gives us a look at the other convicted killer, Jason Burkett; his father, also incarcerated; a woman who lost both her mother and brother in the crime; as well as a chaplain and former executioner who’ve been with death row prisoners as they’ve taken their final breaths.
We hope you can make it to The Belcourt for the screening and what should prove to be an interesting discussion to follow.
Film photos above courtesy of The Belcourt
The Associated Press ran an inspiring story earlier this week about the survivors of the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, last January that severely injured Representative Gabrielle Giffords as well as 12 others and killed six. The article describes the survivors’ ongoing journeys of physical and emotional healing while highlighting their tremendous strength and ability to move past their anger together.
Several of the victims noted that they are trying to focus on the positive by getting more involved in the community. Some speak to students about the power of forgiveness. Others formed a program that helps with various school projects and an organization that raises awareness about mental illness and bullying in schools. The Tucson shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, 23, has bipolar disorder and showed signs of being disturbed for at least two years before the shooting.
These victims’ stories are a testament to the potential and power of forgiveness. Pam Simon, a staffer for Representative Gabrielle Giffords and a victim who survived gunshots to her chest and wrist, said she was still in the hospital when she decided to forgive Loughner. She said she only now feels “profound sadness” that he didn’t get treatment for his bipolar disorder before it was too late. “It’s absolutely pointless to weigh myself down with anger or hatred toward this young man,” she said.
Even in the face of great personal pain and suffering, these individuals are even more determined to improve their communities and the lives of those around them. TADP gives thanks for their witness.
Photo by Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times
In her first public comments on the issue of the death penalty since becoming the Chief
Justice of California’s Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye recently called for a re-evaluation of the state’s death penalty system, saying the system is not working and is “not effective.” Justice Cantil-Sakauye noted that California’s death penalty system needed “structural change, and we do not have the money to create the kind of change that is needed.” The court system was forced to cut $200 million from its budget this year.
When asked if she supported the death penalty, the former prosecutor appointed to the court by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, said, “I don’t know if the question is whether you believe in it anymore. I think the greater question is its effectiveness and given the choices we face in California, should we have a merit-based discussion on its effectiveness and costs?” Her comments echoed those of her predecessor, Chief Justice Ronald M. George, also a former prosecutor, who called the state’s capital punishment system “dysfunctional.”
As we reflect on the past year, TADP is proud of the continued success of the abolition movement across the nation. The repeal of the death penalty in Illinois marked perhaps the greatest achievement of 2011 with folks from all over the country, including Tennessee, traveling to Illinois to work on the effort. Other states like Maryland, Connecticut, and California are hard at work educating and organizing citizens, moving those states even closer to repeal.
Other victories include Oregon’s governor issuing a moratorium on executions and North Carolina’s governor preserving the Racial Justice Act, allowing death row inmates to appeal their sentences based on statistical proof of racial bias.
Last month the Pennsylvania Senate passed a resolution to establish a comprehensive analysis of capital punishment, and in Ohio, a legislative committee held a hearing on the state’s death penalty repeal bill. The hearing’s lead witness was Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfieffer, who, as a legislator, was the author of Ohio’s death penalty statute. He joined more than a dozen other prominent voices to effectively call for repeal at last month’s hearing.
Another big moment occurred when Pope Benedict XVI made one of the strongest statements yet against the death penalty at his weekly audience at the Vatican in November.
Here in Tennessee, Governor Bredesen granted clemency to E.J. Harbison in January 2011 after TADP spent years raising awareness about the problems in his case. We had record turnout at our annual Student Conference on the Death Penalty with nearly 200 in attendance, a successful Justice Day on the Hill event, our first Circle of Hope event for murder victims’ families, and our biggest Generations Against the Death Penalty benefit concert yet! In case you missed the coverage of the recent concert, we were featured by County Music Television and The Huffington Post.
In March, David Kaczynski spoke to students at Belmont University on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and was featured on the Channel 5 Plus show Morning Line in Nashville, educating Tennesseans about mental illness and the death penalty. In April, TADP brought Amnesty International’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign Director Laura Moye to Belmont University where she spoke to students about the Troy Davis case.
A 2011 Gallup poll shows that support for the death penalty in the United States is at its lowest level since 1972, and death sentences and executions have reached their lowest levels since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977. Even states like Texas and Virginia, who have the highest rates of death sentences and executions in the nation, have seen a decline in the use of the death penalty. More and more Americans are realizing the many problems with maintaining a death penalty system including the high costs, racial and class bias of its application, and the risk of executing the innocent.
As we head into 2012, TADP and our partners across the country will continue raising awareness and empowering people to get involved. With the overwhelming reaction to the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, people across this country are becoming increasingly moved to act to end this broken system, and TADP will continue to provide opportunities for citizens to make their voices heard.
Happy New Year!
Photo by Wolf Blitzkrieg