Archive for May, 2012
An article by law professor Dan Simon recently appeared in The Huffington Post concerning the National Registry of Exonerations, a registry launched this month that lists 890 men and women who were wrongfully convicted for serious crimes. The registry tracks exonerations only since 1988 and does not include over 1,000 individuals exonerated through large-scale police scandals.
The article describe common-sense procedures that could be easily enacted by law enforcement and district attorneys to greatly limit the number of mistakes, provide more confidence in the system, and limit frivolous defense claims which would decrease the number of appeals. Unfortunately, not enough jurisdictions are making the needed changes, but where it is happening, the results are striking. For example, Dally County, Texas, once plagued with such problems, is now a shining example of a criminal justice process that may be one of the fairest and most accurate in the nation since the the district attorney and police chief adopted new protocols.
Is it too much to ask that the best procedures be in place when a person’s freedom or life may be on the line? We can do better.
Today, a Chicago Tribune article features defense attorney Justyna Garbaczewska Scalpone, a Polish native who has worked against the death penalty in Pennsylvania and then Illinois, but is now moving to Nashville to join the Tennessee Office of the Post-Conviction Defender.
During her time in Illinois, Garbaczewska Scalpone worked under the moratorium that Governor George Ryan implemented in 2000 and knew it was unlikely that any of her clients would be executed. Since Illinois abolished the death penalty last year, she has been wanting to get involved with capital cases again. Nashville seemed to be a good fit since her husband is a musician, and Tennessee has the tenth largest death row in the country.
Though our state’s execution rate isn’t very high (six people in the last 52 years), Garbaczewska Scalpone says she may eventually move on to work in another state like Virginia or Texas, who leads the country in executions. “Tennessee is sort of a middle ground,” she said. “It’s a good step toward that.”
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that in Tennessee, “support for the death penalty runs wide but not deep. It has a sizable death row population, with about 90 prisoners, but does not appear altogether eager to execute them.” He went on to say that “some of the courts in Tennessee, some of the people, even some religious groups–they don’t all fall in line. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to abolish the death penalty, but it’s at a slower pace. There isn’t that unanimous support that pushes everything forward. The result is that good lawyers can make a difference.”
One of Garbaczewska Scalpone’s former supervisors at the Illinois’ Office of the State Appellate Defender said, “she is dedicated to fighting the death penalty, devoted to her clients and smart.” We are happy to have a lawyer with that kind of combination joining the fight here in Tennessee.
(Photo: Justyna Garbaczewska Scalpone taken by Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)
Today, the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University announced the launch of the first National Registry of Exonerations and released a report that reveals that more than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989.
This new registry is the most complete database of exonerations ever compiled and will be updated on an ongoing basis. It contains detailed information on nearly 900 exonerations. More than 1,000 additional cases are “group exonerations” that occurred in response to various police corruption scandals, most of which involved massive planting of drugs and guns on innocent defendants. These group exonerations are described in the report, but not included in the registry. The registry contains cases that were found from court documents and also includes cases identified by advocates for the wrongfully convicted, like the The Innocence Project.
According to an AP article, the leading reasons for the wrongful convictions that are included in the registry were perjury, faulty eyewitness identification and prosecutorial misconduct. The researchers found that the exonerated defendants spent a combined total of more than 10,000 years behind bars, an average of more than 11 years each. Nine out of 10 of the exonerated studied are men, and half are African-American.
Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, said, “The National Registry of Exonerations gives an unprecedented view of the scope of the problem of wrongful convictions in the United States. This is a good start–a milestone–but there’s a long way to go before we have a complete picture of wrongful convictions in the United States.” He added, “The more we learn about false convictions, the better we’ll be at preventing them – or if that fails, at finding and correcting them as best we can after the fact.”
(Photo: Collage of some of the exonerees included in the new Registry. Courtesy of Maurice Possley)
Through extensive research, Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman and a team of his students have uncovered evidence that shows that Carlos DeLuna, a poor Hispanic man who was executed in Texas in 1989, was likely innocent. Their article, Los Tocayos Carlos, and accompanying website was published today in the Columbia University Human Rights Law Review.
Carlos DeLuna appears to have been the victim of a case of mistaken identity. He was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed based on testimony of a single witness, with no corroborating forensics. After the 1983 stabbing death of Wanda Lopez in Corpus Christi, police arrested DeLuna. However, a police audiotape that Professor Liebman’s team discovered was suppressed at the time of trial reveals that police first chased another man matching the description of Carlos Hernandez, who had a long history of violent crimes.
DeLuna maintained his innocence and insisted that they had gotten the wrong Carlos. Hernandez even bragged for years around Corpus Christi that he had committed the murder and that DeLuna, whom he called his tocayo (twin or namesake) took the fall for it. The two men looked so similar that even their friends and family couldn’t easily tell their photos apart.
Unfortunately, we know that such tragedies are not unique. Cameron Todd Willingham and Troy Davis, among others, have also been executed despite strong doubts about their guilt. Our system is riddled with flaws like unreliable eyewitness identification, inadequate legal representation, and prosecutorial misconduct that continues to put the innocent at risk of being executed. And, when the wrong person is convicted, that means that the perpetrator is still free, left to do more harm. While DeLuna was on death row, Hernandez stabbed and attempted to rape another woman. For these reasons and more, we must end the death penalty.
For a more detailed summary of this shocking case, check out these articles in The Atlantic and The Guardian.
(Photo: Carlos DeLuna from Corpus Christi Police Dept. via The Atlantic)
A recent AP story reports that death sentences and executions are down in South Carolina, due in part to some prosecutors who are more hesitant to seek the death penalty as they realize it is too costly and uncertain.
South Carolina has had only one execution in the past three years, no one was sentenced to death in 2011, and their death row has declined almost 30 percent since 2005. In 1995, the state abolished the possibility of parole for those sentenced to life imprisonment. South Carolina State Representative Tommy Pope, a former prosecutor, said that once this happened, it “freed prosecutors from feeling compelled to go after the death penalty as often.” He also told victims’ families that a sentence of life without parole “allowed them a measure of closure that three retrials in a death penalty case never would.”
Prosecutor David Pascoe had planned to pursue the death penalty in the recent case of Shaquan Duley, a woman who killed her two children, but changed his mind after giving it some serious thought. “Once you file for the death penalty, the clock gets moving and the money, the taxpayers start paying for that trial,” said Pascoe.
It is encouraging that prosecutors are acknowledging the problems in our capital punishment system and are more frequently utilizing the less expensive existing alternatives that protect the public while also providing some legal finality for victims’ families.
Photo by: BR WDW
A recent op-ed in The Washington Post written by nationally syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. praises Connecticut for moving in a progressive direction by abolishing the death penalty.
Dionne points out how much of a shift there has been in both attitudes about and political focus on the death penalty since the 80’s and 90’s. It is no longer a hot-button issue in elections and a Gallup survey taken last fall revealed that support for the death penalty was at 61 percent, down from its peak of 80 percent in 1994. He attributes this drop to the decline in crime rates, the concern over executing innocent people, and the increase in Libertarians and “pro-lifers” who are opposed to capital punishment.
However, he goes on to argue that although the climate has changed, it still requires courage for a politician to put an end to the death penalty. When Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy signed the repeal bill into law two weeks ago, a poll found that 62 percent of voters in his state still favored executions and 51 percent disapproved of the legislature passing repeal. At the same time though, when the question was framed in a different way and voters were given the option of what punishment they prefer for people convicted of murder, either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, only 46 percent favored the death penalty.
As more of the public comes to understand that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and that there are alternatives that can still provide for public safety, hopefully other states will follow suit and vote to repeal.
Photo by: dingatx
The last month has proven to be a joyful one in the world of abolition as we’ve had several victories to celebrate.
In the first case heard under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, Marcus Reymond Robinson’s death sentence was changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole when a judge ruled that racial bias played a significant role in his sentencing 18 years ago. This landmark ruling will likely be the first of many more cases that challenge the racism that has permeated numerous capital trials.
Another big victory came when Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed the death penalty repeal bill into law last week, making his state the 17th in the country to abolish the death penalty, and the fifth one in five years!
More good news came when the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academies released a report saying that studies claiming that the death penalty deters crime are fundamentally flawed. “These studies should not be used to inform judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide, and should not serve as a basis for policy decisions about capital punishment,” stated the Council.
Former President Jimmy Carter echoed these sentiments in a recent opinion editorial, pointing out that “just 1 percent of police chiefs think that expanding the death penalty would reduce violent crime.” He went on to say that evidence shows that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent in our county. In fact, “the homicide rate is at least five times greater in the United States than in any Western European country, all without the death penalty.” He also wrote about the unfairness in how the death penalty is applied, the financial burden of the system, as well as religious and ethical concerns.
On April 23, the SAFE California Act, an initiative to replace California’s death penalty with a sentence of life without parole, qualified for the November ballot, with over 800,000 Californians signing the petition to bring the measure to a vote. If passed, it would commute the sentences of over 700 people on California’s death row.
This week, a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard arguments in the case of death row inmate Hank Skinner. Skinner has been asking for DNA testing for more than a decade on crime scene evidence that was not analyzed at his original trial. Appeals courts have previously denied his requests, citing restrictions in a 2001 post-conviction DNA testing law that have since been repealed. Skinner was granted a stay of execution in November so that the changes to this law could be further examined in how they might be applied to his case. Though it may take weeks for the court to issue a decision on whether to allow DNA testing in this case, it seems promising that the judges grilled the state about its opposition to the testing and deemed certain arguments made by the Texas Solicitor General as “illogical.”
Yesterday, another Texas death row inmate, Anthony Bartee, received a last minute stay. He was originally scheduled to be executed in February, even though DNA evidence collected at the crime scene had not been tested as ordered on at least two occasions by District Judge Mary Román. He received a reprieve days before his scheduled execution in February when Judge Román withdrew the death warrant so that additional DNA testing could be conducted on strands of hair found in the hands of the victim, David Cook. Yet, before the testing occurred, Judge Román inexplicably set another execution date for yesterday, May 2. The testing was conducted and the hair was found to be the victim’s. However, there is still more evidence that has not been tested for DNA, including cigarette butts and at least three drinking glasses found at the crime scene. In 2010, the court ordered that all items be tested, but these items still have not been tested. Thank you to those who signed the on-line petition asking for a reprieve for Bartee.
We applaud the determination and efforts of all of the people around the country who made the above successes possible. We hope to build on this momentum and move Tennessee closer to repeal!
Photo by: rkramer62