New Voices

VICTIMS: Death Penalty Dropped at Request of Victim's Mother

Cynthia Portaro, whose son, Michael (pictured), was killed in 2011, stood before a Nevada courtroom on February 23 and asked prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty for the man convicted of her son's murder. Prosecutors agreed to the request and said they would ask the judge to sentence Brandon Hill to life without parole. Portaro said, “I personally didn’t want to see another person die. I got what I wanted — an apology from Brandon. I felt a sense of relief that there is no hatred, animosity, anger.” Joseph Abood, Hill's defense attorney, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. ... I’m just happy that the healing for everybody can start today. … He’s matured a lot since this killing, and I’m glad he’s finally able to recognize that he made a grave error and to know that he needs to apologize.” In the years since her son's death, Portaro has started a support group to help others through the loss of loved ones. “I just help other families through trauma, give them hope, give them tools, guidance, comfort, love, support, knowing that if they can see me being able to do it, they can do it, too,” Portaro said. “It helps me to help others."

Mike Farrell: Troublesome Case in Ohio Points to Broader Problems

Mike Farrell, actor and human rights leader, argued in an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the case of Anthony Apanovitch in Ohio demonstrates several significant problems with the death penalty. Apanovitch was recently granted a new trial, 30 years after he was convicted. Evidence in Apanovitch's case was withheld from his defense, and a DNA test was not performed until decades after the trial. "[W]hen the state seeks the penalty of death -- the one punishment that is irreversible," Farrell wrote, "there is a need for certainty that is at odds with the outrage of the public and the pressure on prosecutors." When a DNA test was eventually performed, it excluded Apanovitch, leading a judge to acquit Apanovitch on one count of rape, dismiss another rape charge against him, remove a specification from the murder charge, and order a new trial on the remaining murder and burglary charges. Farrell, who has been involved in the case for decades, emphasized how the uncertainty of the case effected the victim's family: "For 30 years, the Flynn family has lived with nearly unendurable pain while those in charge of our system have struggled to justify killing Anthony Apanovitch." He concluded, "It is too soon, even after 30 years, to call this case resolved. But it is not too soon to say that the death penalty system is a failure. In fact, it is long past time for us to declare that the death penalty does not serve the interests of society, the interests of victims, or the interests of justice."

Death Penalty Repeal Bill Advances with Bi-Partisan Support in Montana

On February 18, the Montana House Judiciary Committee voted (11-10) to advance HB 370, a bill to replace the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without parole. The same committee had rejected similar bills several times in recent years. The bill will now move to the full House. Republican bill sponsor Rep. David Moore (pictured) said he thought the bill had a decent chance of passing in the House. Rep. Clayton Fiscus, one of two Republican members of the Judiciary Committee who supported the bill, said, "Our death penalty is a joke." He cited the high cost of capital trials and concerns about executing an innocent person as reasons for supporting abolition. Rep. Bruce Meyers, the other Republican who voted to advance the bill, said he was religiously opposed to capital punishment: “That was part of my conscience, the way I was raised. Native Americans view all life as being sacred.” All 9 Democratic members of the committee also voted in favor of the bill.

BOOKS: One Woman's Journey After Her Sister's Murder

Jeanne Bishop has written a new book about her life and spiritual journey after her sister was murdered in Illinois in 1990. Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister's Killer tells Bishop's personal story of grief, loss, and of her eventual efforts to confront and reconcile with her sister's killer. She also addresses larger issues of capital punishment, life sentences for juvenile offenders, and restorative justice. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan said of the book, "When I commuted the death sentences of everyone on Illinois's death row, I expressed the hope that we could open our hearts and provide something for victims' families other than the hope of revenge. I quoted Abraham Lincoln: 'I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.' Jeanne Bishop's compelling book tells the story of how devotion to her faith took her face-to-face with her sister's killer .... She reminds us of a core truth: that our criminal justice system cannot be just without mercy."

Eric Holder Advocates for a Hold on Executions

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that all executions be put on hold while the Supreme Court is considering Glossip v. Gross, a case involving Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. Speaking for himself, rather than the administration, at a press luncheon on February 17, Holder said, "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate." Holder has previously criticized state secrecy in lethal injections, but voiced broader concerns about executing the innocent in his remarks: “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong. But there's always the possibility that mistakes will be made...There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” Holder said that the Department of Justice's review of the death penalty, which President Obama ordered after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, is still underway, and is unlikely to be finished before Holder steps down as Attorney General.

Pennsylvania Governor Announces Moratorium on Executions

On February 13 Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania announced a moratorium on all executions in the state. He said no executions will take place at least until he has "received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established under Senate Resolution 6 of 2011, and there is an opportunity to address all concerns satisfactorily." The legislature commissioned the report in 2011. In his statement, Governor Wolf said, "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania." Terrance Williams, whose execution was scheduled for March 4, has been granted a reprieve. Governor Wolf joins the governors of Oregon, Washington, and Colorado in placing a hold on executions because of concerns about the death penalty system. In addition, 18 states have abolished the death penalty.

NEW VOICES: Conservative Leaders Seek Reprieve for Severely Mentally Ill Inmate

A group of conservative leaders has joined in an effort to save the life of Scott Panetti, a Texas death row inmate with a history of severe mental illness. Members include several law enforcement officials and notable conservatives, such as Mark Earley--former Attorney General of Virginia, Harold Stratten--former Attorney General of New Mexico, David Keene--the Washington Times opinion editor, James Miller III--director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan; and Richard Viguerie--chairman of ConservativeHQ.com. The group filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, stating, "Even for those who favor a measured and just system of capital punishment, the execution of Panetti would be a moral scandal that would only undermine confidence in such a system." Panetti's attorneys say that he is mentally incompetent and therefore ineligible for execution. Panetti, who represented himself at trial wearing a cowboy suit and attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy and the pope, has not had his mental competency evaluated in seven years, and his attorneys say his condition has worsened. The conservatives' brief concluded, "Panetti should be given the time and resources he seeks, and the case should be remanded so that he can prepare a petition for writ of habeas corpus raising a claim that he is incompetent to be executed."

NEW VOICES: Bi-Partisan Bill Introduced to Abolish Washington's Death Penalty

Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray, all 9 members of the Seattle City Council, and City Attorney Pete Holmes signed a letter in support of a bi-partisan bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington. Tim Burgess (l.), the President of the City Council, is a former police officer and detective. The joint letter said: “There is no credible evidence showing that the death penalty deters homicide or makes our communities safer. Instead, pursuing capital punishment diverts precious resources from critical public safety programs, delays final resolution for victims’ families and has serious implications for racial and social equity.” Among the reasons given for abolition were the high cost of death penalty trials and the lengthy appeals required in death penalty cases. The nine inmates on Washington's death row have spent an average of 17 years awaiting execution. King County, where Seattle is located, has already spent $15 million on two capital trials currently underway and a third that has not yet begun, the letter said.

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