New Voices

ARBITRARINESS: Getting a Death Sentence May Depend on the Budget of the County

Whether the death penalty will be sought in a murder may depend more on the budget of the county in which it is committed than on the severity of the crime, according to several prosecutors. A report by the Marshall Project found that the high costs of capital cases prevent some district attorneys from seeking the death penalty. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.” One capital case can bankrupt a county: “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County, Texas. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?” Prosecutors cited past cases in which counties had to drastically alter their budgets in order to pay for death penalty trials. In Jasper County, Texas, a county auditor said the budget shock of a death penalty case was as bad as a flood that destroyed roads and bridges. Seeking the death penalty in one case in Gray County, Texas, forced the county to raise taxes and suspend raises for employees. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole. When Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor Greg McPhillips decided not to seek the death penalty in a case he thought was particularly heinous, he pointed to costs as the reason: “The County Attorney’s Office wants to do their part in helping the County meet its fiscal responsibilities in this time of economic crisis not only in our County but across the nation,” he said.

Oklahoma Warden Called Recent Execution a "Bloody Mess"

Attorneys for several inmates in Oklahoma have asked a federal court to stay their executions and presented new accounts of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett (pictured) as evidence the state's execution procedure is unconstitutionally cruel. The recent filing included statements describing the execution from the warden, an attending paramedic, and a victims' services advocate who witnessed the execution. Warden Anita Trammell called the execution, "a bloody mess," and said, "I was kind of panicking. Thinking oh my God. He’s coming out of this. It’s not working.” Edith Shoals, a victims' services advocate for the Department of Corrections, witnessed the execution from an overflow room and said, “It was like a horror movie … [Lockett] kept trying to talk.” The paramedic who participated in the execution described the doctor's failed attempts to insert an IV, saying, "I don’t think he realized that he hit the artery and I remember saying you’ve got the artery. We’ve got blood everywhere." Lockett was pricked at least 16 times in attempts to insert the IV. The doctor declined to set a backup IV line, as called for in the execution protocol, explaining, "We had stuck this individual so many times, I didn’t want to try and do another line." Mike Oakley, a former general counsel for the Department of Corrections, said "political pressure" played a role in the selection of execution drugs. “[T]he attorney general’s office, being an elective office, was under a lot of pressure. The, the staff over there was under a lot of pressure to, to say, ‘Get it done,’ you know, and so, yeah, I, I think it was a joint decision but there was, I got to say there was a definite push to make the decision, get it done, hurry up about it.”

VICTIMS: Boston Bombing Trial Could Cause More Trauma

In an op-ed in the Boston Herald, Michael Avery, professor emeritus at Suffolk University Law School, whose sister and niece were murdered 30 years ago, suggested that a plea bargain might be a better ourcome for all concerned in the case of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the defendant in the Boston Marathon bombing. A trial, he said, would be painful for victims and survivors: "Boston will relive every tortu[r]ous moment of the bombing, over and over, probably for weeks...if Tsarnaev is convicted, we’ll have a second trial on the penalty. The defense lawyers will present evidence in mitigation of the death sentence. We’ll suffer through two Chechen wars, a Russian occupation, and a psychoanalysis of the defendant.” He reflected on his own experience when his sister’s killer was put on trial: "Although I’m a lawyer, I didn’t go, and I didn’t read the Florida papers reporting the evidence. I couldn’t have handled it. My heart goes out to the people who won’t be able to handle the Tsarnaev trial. They won’t be able to avoid the massive publicity.” He urged Attorney General Eric Holder to spare all of Boston further trauma by accepting a guilty plea and a sentence of life in prison. Read the full op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Texas Appellate Judge Denounces Death Penalty and Upcoming Execution

On Nov. 26, Judge Tom Price dissented from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' denial of relief for Scott Panetti:
"Having spent the last forty years as a judge for the State of Texas, of which the last eighteen years have been as a judge on this Court, I have given a substantial amount of consideration to the propriety of the death penalty as a form of punishment for those who commit capital murder, and I now believe that it should be abolished. I, therefore, respectfully dissent from the Court's order denying the motion for stay of execution and dismissing the subsequent application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Scott Louis Panetti, applicant. I would grant applicant's motion for a stay of execution and would hold that his severe mental illness renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

Growing Opposition to Execution of Severely Mentally Ill Inmate in Texas

Commentary on Scott Panetti's scheduled execution on December 3 in Texas:

"By any reasonable standard — not to mention the findings of multiple mental-health experts over the years — Mr. Panetti is mentally incompetent...A civilized society should not be in the business of executing anybody. But it certainly cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability if it kills someone like Scott Panetti."
-N.Y. Times, Nov. 23, 2014

"In a 1986 decision, the Supreme Court said that executing the insane served no purpose and would be 'savage and inhumane.' Today, no words could better describe the state’s plans to strap Panetti to a gurney and end his tortured life."
-Dallas Morning News, Nov. 23, 2014

"[W]e believe that executing a person as severely and persistently ill as Scott Panetti would only compound the original tragedy, represent a profound injustice, and serve no useful retributive or preventive purpose."
-National Alliance on Mental Illness, Nov. 17, 2014

"The European Union strongly believes that the execution of persons suffering from a mental disorder is contrary to widely accepted human rights norms and is in contradiction to the minimum standards of human rights set forth in several international human rights instruments, as well as being prohibited by the US Constitution."
-European Union, Nov. 14, 2014

NEW VOICES: Retired Police Captain Says Repealing Death Penalty Is "Smart on Crime"

Jim Davidsaver, a retired police captain with over 25 years experience in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department, recently advocated for repeal of the state's death penalty from a law enforcement perspective. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal-Star, Davidsaver said, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty doesn’t keep us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." He highlighted the financial tradeoff between the death penalty and other crime prevention measures: "The millions of dollars we’ve spent on the death penalty would have been much better invested in more police officers, additional resources or training for our current officers." He concluded, "The cheaper, more intelligent alternative for our state is life without the possibility of parole. Repealing the death penalty does not mean we are ‘soft’ on crime. It means we are smart on crime."

NEW VOICES: Federal Judge Underscores the "Heavy Price" of the Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who presided over the first federal death penalty trial in Massachusetts in over 50 years, warned that the death penalty comes with a "heavy price" - the risk of executing innocent people: "A legal regime permitting capital punishment comes with a fairly heavy price....where there’s a death penalty innocent people will die. Sooner or later—we hope not too often—someone who didn’t commit the crime will be executed." In 2001, Judge Ponsor oversaw the capital trial of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who was charged with killing some of her patients. Gilbert was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. The judge said the trial made him question the whole process of death sentencing: "The most profound realization I took from Gilbert was that human beings getting together to decide whether someone should be executed, even when they are supervised by a judge, will make mistakes."

NEW VOICES: Mental Health and Law Enforcement Leaders Urge Clemency for Texas Inmate

Panetti
(Click to enlarge). On November 12, the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America, 30 former judges, prosecutors, and Attorneys General, 50 evangelical faith leaders, and the American Bar Association joined many others in calling on Texas Governor Rick Perry to commute the sentence of death row inmate Scott Panetti because of his severe mental illness. Despite his long history of hospitalization in mental institutions, Panetti is scheduled to be executed on December 3. Panetti is a paranoid schizophrenic who represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy costume, and attempted to subpoena over 200 people, including Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and the Pope. A letter of support signed by 30 law enforcement officials said, "We come together from across the partisan and ideological divide and are united in our belief that, irrespective of whether we support or oppose the death penalty, this is not an appropriate case for execution." Fifty evangelical Christian leaders signed a letter saying, “The execution of Scott Panetti would be a cruel injustice that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever. When we inflict the harshest punishment on the severely mentally ill, whose culpability is greatly diminished by their debilitating conditions, we fail to respect their innate dignity as human beings.”

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