EDITORIALS: Sacramento Bee Ends Support for Death Penalty

The Sacramento Bee announced in an editorial that it is reversing its historic 150-year support of the death penalty and endorsing the repeal of California's capital  punishment law. The editorial called the state's death penalty an "illusion," which is rarely carried out, despite the large number of death sentences. It cited the high cost of the death penalty as one of the reasons for supporting repeal, noting, "California has already spent billions of dollars – one recent study pegged the figure at $4 billion – administering the death penalty since 1978, with little to show for it....In a state prepared to further cut public education, universities and public safety, do we really want to invest in accelerated executions?" The Bee also spoke to the needs of victims' families, who, rather than getting closure from the death penalty, "are being tormented by the inflated expectations that California's judicial system has foisted on them." It concluded, "The state's death penalty is an outdated, flawed and expensive system of punishment that needs to be replaced with a rock-solid sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole." Read full editorial below.

INNOCENCE: Ohio Judge Dismisses All Charges and Frees Inmate from Death Row

On September 6, Michael Keenan (pictured) was released from prison after spending about 20 years on Ohio's death row. Keenan and co-defendant Joseph D'Ambrosio, who was exonerated in April, were convicted of the 1988 murder of Tony Klann. Keenan's first conviction was overturned in 1994, but he was retried and again sentenced to death. His second conviction was overturned earlier in 2012 due to prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors withheld evidence that could have exonerated Keenan and D'Ambrosio, including police statements that discredited testimony from the only eyewitness to the crime and evidence that the man who led police to Keenan had a possible motive for killing the victim. A Cuyahoga County judge dismissed all charges against Keenan and barred a re-trial, but the state may still appeal that decision. If today's decision is upheld, Keenan will likely be added to DPIC's Innocence List. Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row.  Six of those exonerations have been from Ohio, including D'Ambrosio.

Prosecution of Reggie Clemons in Missouri to be Subject of Special Death Penalty Hearing

Reggie Clemons has been on Missouri's death row for 19 years for the murder of two young white women.  He has already come close to execution, and one of the co-defendants in the case has been executed. Clemons' conviction was based partly on his confession to rape that he says was beaten out of him by the police.  Other testimony against Clemons came from his co-defendants.  Of the four men charged with the murders, three were black and one was white.  The white co-defendant is already out on parole.  Because of doubts that have arisen about the validity of his conviction, a special hearing will be held on September 17 to determine whether crucial errors were made in prosecuting Clemons.  The special master presiding at the hearing will then present a recommendation to the Missouri Supreme Court. Clemons’ lawyers are expected to present new evidence that supports his assertion that he was physically beaten into making a confession, and that the coerced confession should not have been admitted at trial. Other issues likely to be raised include the prosecution’s failure to disclose a rape kit to defense lawyers, and that the manner in which the jury was selected was later ruled unconstitutional. (Ed Pilkington of The Guardian discusses his investigation into the case in the accompanying video.)

BOOKS: "Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity"

A new book by Professors Saundra Westervelt and Kimberly Cook looks at the lives of eighteen people who had been wrongfully sentenced to death and who were later freed from death row. In Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity, the authors focus on three central areas affecting those who had to begin a new life after leaving years of severe confinement: the seeming invisibility of these individuals after their release; the complicity of the justice system in allowing that invisibility; and the need for each of them to confront their personal trauma. C. Ronald Huff, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, noted, “The authors skillfully conduct a journey inside the minds of exonerees, allowing readers to see the world from their unique perspectives.” 

U.S. Court of Appeals Throws Out Virginian's Death Sentence and Conviction

On August 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling vacating Justin Wolfe’s (pictured) conviction and death sentence for a drug-conspiracy murder in Virginia in 2001.  His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill Daniel Petrole because of an outstanding drug debt. In 2010, Barber testified in open court that his testimony at Wolfe's trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with Petrole's death. Barber also admitted he agreed to implicate Wolfe in order to avoid the death penalty.  The 4th Circuit threw out all of Wolfe's convictions because the state had withheld crucial evidence showing that it was the police who introduced Barber to the idea of Wolfe's part in the conspiracy, and implying that Barber could avoid the death penalty if he so testified. (Referring to the Newsome report).  The court criticized the prosecution for intentionally withholding vital materials from the defense: "[W]e feel compelled to acknowledge that the Commonwealth’s suppression of the Newsome report, as well as other apparent Brady materials, was entirely intentional," the court wrote.

INNOCENCE: Shujaa Graham, Exonerated and Freed from California's Death Row, Tells His Story

In a video interview with Voice of America, former death row inmate Shujaa Graham discusses the emotional toll of being wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in California in 1976.  Graham was convicted of the murder of a prison guard during a protest and spent five years on death row before being acquitted of the crime.  He went through four trials, only one of which resulted in a guilty verdict.  He first went to prison for a robbery conviction, which was also overturned, at age 18.  Graham said, “What has happened to me is over with and done. No one can bring those years back, and no one can remove the psychological scars. No one can remove the physical scars. But Shujaa Graham can go on and make sure what happened to him never happens to anyone else.” Graham’s wife, Phyllis, adds that the experience of facing execution still weighs on him. She said, “It’s been a long time now that we’ve been together and he still suffers and I think there’s still really ways that he holds on to what that formative years of your 20s, is your life, of how you look at the world. His were in prison and death row and being tortured.” Graham concludes, “Each and every day that I wake up, death row is the first thing on my mind. I can look at my children and look at my wife and say what if California would’ve had their way, I wouldn’t be here today.”

ARBITRARINESS: South Carolina Frees Man Who Faced Execution

Joseph Ard, who spent 11 years on South Carolina's death row and a total of 19 years in confinement, was freed from prison on July 31. Ard was sentenced to death for the 1993 shooting of his pregnant girlfriend.  After his conviction, new lawyers unearthed evidence that corroborated Ard’s claim that the shooting was accidental, resulting from a struggle with his girlfriend over a gun.  Ard was granted a re-trial in 2007, and his lawyers presented scientific testimony that his girlfriend had gunshot residue on her hands, supporting Ard’s account of a struggle. The jury found Ard guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and the judge sentenced him to time served. Aimee Zmroczek, one of Ard’s lawyers, said, “The state Supreme Court once upheld his death sentence, so if that decision hadn’t been overturned, he might have been put to death by now.” Ard was the first person in South Carolina to be sentenced to death for murder involving an unborn child.  The prosecution did not seek the death penalty in the re-trial.

Read more here:

OP-ED: California's Costly and Risky Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed, Tracie Olson, the Yolo County Public Defender, explained why California's death penalty could be replaced with more cost-efficient and less risky alternatives. Olson listed the death penalty’s high costs and risks of wrongful executions as reasons why alternatives to the death penalty would be more beneficial to the state’s citizens. Olson cited a 2011 study that found the death penalty has cost the state over $4 billion since 1978, and that capital cases cost 10-20 times more to litigate than murder trials that do not involve the death penalty. Olson concluded, “A society that respects life does not deliberately kill human beings. An execution is a violent public spectacle of official homicide, and one that endorses killing to solve social problems -- the worst possible example to set for the citizenry, and especially children. ... I urge everyone to learn the truth and educate themselves about the death penalty....”