Archive for June, 2012
Today marks 40 years since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Furman v. Georgia, which found the application of the death penalty to be so arbitrary that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Potter Stewart even likened receiving a death sentence to being struck by lightning. Four years later when the death penalty was reinstated, new sentencing procedures were supposed to make the system fairer and less arbitrary. But 40 years later, the death penalty system is as flawed as ever.
How can the death penalty be anything but arbitrary when factors such as the quality of defense counsel, the race of the victim, and the county in which one is charged, continue to wield so much influence on who is sentenced to death? Evidence of arbitrariness is everywhere: 90% of Tennessee death row inmates were unable to hire their own defense at trial; a person is at least 3 times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white; and approximately 40% of the inmates on Tennessee’s death row come from one county—Shelby–while half of the state’s counties have never sentenced anyone to death.
The system is so broken that the risk of executing an innocent person remains frighteningly real. Just last month, Columbia University law professor James Liebman published results of a comprehensive investigation into the case of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in Texas in 1989. Professor Liebman concluded that DeLuna was almost certainly innocent and had been wrongly convicted “on the thinnest of evidence: a single, nighttime, cross-ethnic eyewitness identification and no corroborating forensics.”
Nationwide 140 inmates have been released from death rows when evidence of their innocence emerged, including 3 men in Tennessee. Michael McCormick and Paul House of Tennessee both spent 20 years each fighting their wrongful convictions before finally winning their freedom.
Across the country, states are moving away from the death penalty. In the last five years, five states have repealed this failed policy. TADP is working hard to educate more Tennesseans about just how broken this system is and to organize them to act. We can’t wait on the courts to get involved but must get the word out in our local communities and reach out to our elected officials to tell them that it is time for the death penalty to go.
Arkansas has not carried out an execution since 2005, and it is unlikely that there will be another one in the near future since the state’s Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Arkansas’ lethal injection law is unconstitutional.
In a 5-2 decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court sided with 10 death row inmates who argued that the law violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine. Arkansas’ constitution states that only the legislature can set execution policy, but legislators handed over that authority to the Department of Corrections in the Method of Execution Act of 2009, letting them determine the chemicals used in lethal injections.
Unfortunately, this ruling does not abolish Arkansas’s death penalty, but it does leave the state without a lawful way to carry out executions until a new law is passed. Since the court struck down the entire law about how the death penalty is administered, it not only stops lethal injection, but also prevents the state from using backup methods like electrocution.
It is not clear whether the state will appeal this ruling. Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe said he “will review what the options are, talk to the attorney general and key legislative leaders and will study the way other states have handled these rulings.”
The continued problems with lethal injection across the country, including in Tennessee, are symptomatic of the continued problems with the death penalty system as a whole–its lack of fairness, cost, and risk of executing an innocent person. Arkansas could spare itself a huge amount of money, bureaucracy, and human resources by ending the death penalty and applying the savings and resources to victims’ compensation and real crime prevention.
(Photo courtesy of: Arkansas Judiciary)
Opal Ahrens is a pro at yard sales. She knows how to collect quality items from a variety of people and places, how to get the goods tagged and organized, and how to get the word out. In the spring, Opal decided that she wanted to have another yard sale, but this time, she had personal inspiration–her nephew Paul House, who spent nearly 23 years on Tennessee’s death row for a crime that evidence (including DNA) demonstrated he did not commit.
Opal partnered up with Paul’s sister-in-law, Pam House, and they begin planning a yard sale to benefit TADP. Before this nightmare of Paul’s wrongful conviction happened to their own family, the two didn’t give the death penalty much thought. But since Paul’s ordeal, they have become passionate advocates for death penalty repeal.
Many of us feel overwhelmed when looking at a big issue like the death penalty, and we wonder how to begin to make a difference. But Opal and Pam didn’t let the task overwhelm them. Instead they focused, not on what they couldn’t do, but instead, on what they could do and then…here is the key… they did it!
Last Saturday, June 16, in Knoxville, they held a yard sale for TADP with Paul and Joyce House helping with the sorting and labeling, and Marty, Paul’s brother, manning the money box. Marty had just come off a late shift of work with no sleep but volunteered to sit in the heat all day to help out.
The sale raised nearly $700 for TADP to continue our efforts to educate Tennesseans about the fatal flaws with the death penalty system. But it did something else. It provided an opportunity for folks just looking for a good deal to meet Paul House, hear some of his story, and to witness a living example of the risk we take with a system so flawed that to date 140 people have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death–and those are only the cases we know about.
This family’s commitment to the work of repeal is inspiring to me, and I wanted to share it with you. And who knows, maybe it will become a House family tradition! Not all of us have a lot of time or resources to dedicate to the work of repeal, but in big and small ways, we can make a difference. We all have some gift, skill, or passion that can be used to further the cause. Thank you House family for all your work and inspiration!
(Pictured left to right: Paul House, Joyce House, and legislative staff)
Last Wednesday, North Carolina’s House of Representatives passed a bill that would essentially repeal the state’s Racial Justice Act, a groundbreaking law that allows a finding of racial bias in sentencing or jury selection in capital cases based on sophisticated statistical studies. The new proposed legislation would require courts to revert to the older and more problematic process of finding direct racial bias by the prosecution or jury against an individual defendant in order to reverse a death sentence, limiting courts to county or district, rather than state, statistical measures. This would drastically undermine the ability to demonstrate systemic racial bias. The Senate is expected to take up the newly proposed measure as early as Monday evening and is likely to pass the legislation with a veto-proof majority.
However, on Friday, a group of prominent civil rights leaders started a petition to urge the North Carolina Senate, the House of Representatives, the Governor and the North Carolina Council of State to stand firm in protecting civil rights and reject the bill.
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is urging supporters to add their names to this important petition. Please click here in order to sign the petition and help voice your concern for preventing injustice and defending of civil rights
On the eleventh anniversary of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s execution, Andrew Cohen writes in The Atlantic about a new book, Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure. In it, author Jody Lynee Madeira, an associate professor at Indiana University School of Law, examines the experiences of the survivors and victims’ families during McVeigh’s trial and execution and their struggle to find and define closure in the years since.
Madeira concludes from her interviews that closure is often a process rather than a distinctive moment or event and that each person experiences it differently, while some never do at all. It can also come in unique forms like conversations between perpetrators’ family members and victims’ families. In the book, she retells the story of Bud Welch, the father of bombing victim Julie Welch, and the relationship he formed with Timothy McVeigh’s father, Bill.
(Photo: Shari Sawyer, right, wipes a tear as she leans on the shoulder of her husband, Jay, after witnessing the execution of Timothy McVeigh via AP in The Atlantic)
Although in its 1986 ruling in Ford v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to execute a person who is insane, every year individuals suffering from severe and persistent mental illness continue to be sentenced to death and executed in this country. A recent editorial in The New York Times highlights the case of Abdul Awkal, an Ohio death row inmate who was scheduled to be executed last Wednesday, but whose life was at least temporarily spared when Governor John Kasich granted a two week reprieve to allow for a thorough hearing.
Awkal, who was convicted of killing his wife and brother-in-law in 1992, has suffered from severe mental illness for decades. He lived through eight years of civil war in his home country of Lebanon before escaping to the U.S. and is thought to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He has a history of mental breakdowns, suicidal depression, and hallucinations, and was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder. He has been deemed by several courts to be too mentally incompetent to assist in his own defense and he believes he is an advisor to the CIA and is being executed because he has angered them, and they want him dead.
Early last week, a state trial judge found that there was enough evidence to justify a hearing about Awkal’s sanity, but said there was not time to obtain witnesses, and he did not have the power to issue a stay of execution. The Ohio Supreme Court refused to grant a stay before Governor Kasich stepped in.
If a thorough review of Awkal’s history of severe and persistent mental illness would’ve been taken into consideration long ago, perhaps a death sentence could have been avoided. Perhaps millions of dollars could’ve been saved and used instead on mental health treatment and prevention services. As the editorial concludes, however, Awkal’s story is not uncommon. “The death penalty system fails to take adequate account of severe mental illness, whether at trial, at sentencing or in postconviction proceedings. This is yet another reason the penalty should be abolished and further evidence of the grave injustices committed in this system.”
(Photo courtesy of Publik15 via Suite101.com)
In December, TADP reported that Ndume Olatushani (formerly known as Erskine Johnson) was granted a new trial by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals due to faulty witness testimony. His original death sentence for the 1983 murder of a Memphis grocery store manager, Joe Belenchia, during a robbery was thrown out in 1999 after an appeals court found that police reports and evidence had been withheld. He was later re-sentenced to life in prison. Since the December 2011 ruling, Ndume has been incarcerated awaiting a new trial.
Last Friday, however, Ndume was released , after serving nearly 27 years in prison (19 of which were on death row) when he took an Alford plea. To avoid potentially serving several more years in the Shelby County jail awaiting a new trial and taking his chances with another jury, Ndume took the plea deal. This deal required that he plead guilty to second-degree murder, while, at the same time, allowed him to maintain his innocence as he has since the beginning. In exchange, he was sentenced to time served and was released.
Just as in the infamous case of the West Memphis Three who also took Alford pleas and were released in 2011, Ndume is free, but has justice been served? Though the evidence points to his innocence, Ndume will still have a second-degree murder on his record. He spent 27 years of his life in a prison cell, separated from his family and friends, waiting for the courts to intervene. The victim’s family has endured a decades long process full of uncertainty and pain while millions of tax payers’ dollars have been wasted. Though a killer may still be roaming the streets, this plea deal allows the state to save face, maintain a conviction, and close the case.
TADP is elated that after all these years Ndume is a free man. At the same time, the illogical Alford plea is a sobering reminder of how flawed the death penalty system is. This plea specifically allows Ndume to maintain his innocence while pleading guilty at the same time…his freedom used as a bargaining chip while the victim’s family is left with ultimately no one held accountable after all of these years.
To date in Tennessee, four men have been wrongfully convicted and sent to death row–three of whom ultimately had all charges against them dismissed and now one who took an Alford plea. Three Tennessee death row inmates have been granted clemency–one of whom is out of prison today, coming within a few months of execution–and six who have been executed since 1960. Do those number frighten anyone else?
What have we spent in taxpayer money for such spotty and scary results? How many lives were turned upside down? How many promises broken? Repealing the death penalty ends this arbitrary system and moves us one step closer to restoring the public’s faith in the reliability of the criminal justice system. The time for repeal is now.
Photo credit: Charles O’Rear/Corbis
At the end of 2011, we reported that the Gallup general survey revealed that support for the death penalty was at its lowest level in 39 years (61 percent of respondents supported capital punishment, down from 80 percent support in 1994). Last week, Gallup released a new survey about American moral views on a variety of social issues, including the death penalty. They found that only 58 percent of those surveyed said the death penalty is “morally acceptable”, down from 65 percent last year. This is the lowest approval rating for capital punishment since this survey was first administered 12 years ago. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, support for the death penalty generally falls below 50 percent when the public is offered alternative punishments.
As the public and our leaders become more educated about the many flaws in our death penalty system, hopefully these numbers will only continue to fall each year and changing attitudes will be reflected in public policy.