New Voices

NEW VOICES: Retired Judges Support Death Row Inmate's Appeal

In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, eight retired judges recently asked the Court to review the case of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed is scheduled to be executed in January 2015. While the judges, who served on federal and state courts in many jurisdictions around the country, did not take a stance on Reed's innocence claims, they urged the Court to hear his appeal so that new evidence in the case could be examined under the light of cross-examination in a full hearing, rather than just through the review of legal papers. "That is not how our system of justice is designed to operate," the judges said. "When courts have only affidavits without witness testimony, they lack the means of testing the accuracy, reliability, competence, scientific acumen, proper training and judgment of the [person testifying]." Reed is claiming that his trial lawyers did not adequately investigate forensic evidence that experts now say might be unreliable. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected Reed's appeal because they found the new testimony unpersuasive as presented in appellate briefs. The eight judges who petitioned the Supreme Court said the evidence should have been heard by a district judge in an evidentiary hearing, rather than by the appeals court. "Trial courts are the appropriate venue for developing a factual record and resolving questions of fact," they said. See list of judges below.

NEW STATEMENTS: The Death Penalty Is Incompatible with Human Dignity

On July 19 Prof. Charles Ogletree of Harvard University Law School wrote in the Washington Post about the future of the death penalty in the U.S. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed (Hall v. Florida) that executing defendants with intellectual disabilities serves “no legitimate penological purpose,” Prof. Ogletree said this reasoning could be applied to the whole death penalty: "The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows." He cited a study published in the Hastings Law Journal that found that "the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits," such as mental illness, youthful brain development, or abuse during childhood. He concluded that when you examine capital punishment more closely, "what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible." Read the op-ed below.

INTERNATIONAL: UN Secretary-General Says Death Penalty Is Cruel and Inhumane

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently called on all nations to take concrete steps toward ending the death penalty. In his opening remarks at an event co-sponsored by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Ban said, "Together, we can finally end this cruel and inhumane practice everywhere around the world." He noted that "more than four out of five countries — an estimated 160 Member States — have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it." He encouraged support for the UN General Assembly's resolution, first adopted in 2007, supporting a moratorium on the death penalty with a view toward abolishing it. Each time the resolution is renewed, its margin of support has grown. Ban also called on member states to ratify the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at ending capital punishment.

NEW VOICES: Florida Justice Warns of Fallibility of Eyewitness Testimony

Justice Barbara Pariente of the Florida Supreme Court recently commented on the danger of mistake in eyewitness testimony and the importance of warning juries about the possibility of error. Her comments came in a death penalty case where she said that widely accepted scientific research, "'convincingly demonstrates the fallibility of eyewitness identification testimony and pinpoints an array of variables that are most likely to lead to a mistaken identification.'" (citation omitted).  She also noted that "eyewitness misidentification has played a role in more than seventy-five percent of convictions that were subsequently overturned through DNA testing" in Florida. She recommended that courts allow experts to testify about the fallibility of such testimony.

NEW VOICES: Conservatives Speak About the Death Penalty

A growing number of conservatives have stated their opposition to the death penalty. Among them is National Review columnist and American Enterprise Institute fellow Ramesh Ponnuru, who cited his Catholic faith as a reason for the change in his stance. He said he had to overcome his initial emotional response to heinous crimes because, “Our emotional or intuitive reactions are not a sure guide to right and wrong in matters of moral import." He added that the death penalty's declining prominence as a hot-button issue might give conservatives more room to reconsider the position: “Once an issue drops in political salience,” he said, “quieter reflection can take place and people can change their minds.” Ponnuru's views are similar to those expressed earlier by prominent conservative leader Richard Viguerie, who said he has opposed the death penalty for 35 years because of his faith.

NEW VOICES: Oliver North - Long-Time Opponent of the Death Penalty

Oliver North, a former Marine and noted conservative leader, has opposed the death penalty for many years. In a recent interview, he said, "I’m a 'law and order' guy. Don’t get me wrong. Individuals need to be held accountable...but I have always felt… and always said that there are very serious questions about the justice of the death penalty. Just a few months ago, a man (Glenn Ford) who was on death row for thirty years was found to be innocent." When North ran for U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1994, he took an anti-death penalty stance, but he said it did not hurt his campaign, adding, "I got the endorsement of every police organization in Virginia [when I ran] and they all knew exactly where I stood on that issue." North called for further discussion: "I still think it is the kind of thing that deserves an informed debate in our society and our culture. What is it about us that says that we have to affect that kind of retribution? Is it really a deterrent? It doesn’t seem to be."

NEW VOICES: "Death Penalty Has Had Its Day in North Carolina"

Mark Edwards, chair of the Nash County (North Carolina) Republican Party, recently spoke about replacing the death penalty with a sentence of lfie without parole: "As a conservative seeking to find the best way to protect the residents of this great state from crime, I believe the death penalty has had its day in North Carolina. It is time to begin the debate on replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole." He also said, "We are advocating that we replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole, which would will prevent debacles like the Oklahoma execution. It is a tough punishment, and inmates with no hope of release certainly do not live on 'easy street.'" Edwards is a member of North Carolina Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, and he pointed to the toll executions take on correctional officers, especially when executions go wrong: "No matter how professionally the staff carries out its duties, a community is formed and relationships established with the prisoners, including those who sit and wait on death row. Then they have to participate in the inmate’s execution. That cannot be easy for these men and women," Edwards said. "It is not fair for us to impose these untested (and, as the events in Oklahoma remind us, possibly unreliable) drug protocols on the dedicated staff of the Department of Corrections."  Read the full letter to the editor below.

NEW VOICES: Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma Would Bypass Death Penalty

Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma recently said he believes the April 29 execution of Clayton Lockett, “was certainly not done appropriately.” Coburn, who is also a physician, added, “It’s an unfortunate thing but, again, anytime you’re doing anything with the body, things can go wrong." He also spoke more broadly about his views on the death penalty, saying, "I don’t like it. I wish we put everybody that had such a history as this gentleman behind bars working and doing things that would help them." With regard to the investigation the state is conducting on the botched execution, Coburn said, “Oklahoma will correct it. They’ll be transparent about what happened. They’ll fix what happened." The senator did say he thought the death penalty had "deterrent capability."

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