The same Commission that freed former death row inmates Henry McCollum and Leon Brown in September exonerated another man who had been convicted of murder, Willie Womble (l.). The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission freed Womble on October 17, dismissing his 1976 first-degree murder conviction and life sentence. Womble had been convicted of acting as a lookout while another man, Joseph Perry, robbed a convenience store and killed the cashier. Both Perry and Womble received life sentences. Though Womble had always said he was innocent, he never filed a motion to challenge his conviction, perhaps because of his diminished mental capacity (a disability also present in McCollum and Brown). In 2013, Perry wrote a letter to the Innocence Commission stating that Womble was innocent. When Perry learned that his actual accomplice had died, he decided he could reveal Womble's innocence without putting the other man in prison. The Commission investigated Womble's case and found that his confession had been possibly coerced and written by a detective working on the case. Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, said, “In 2008, the legislature passed a law requiring the recording of interrogations. This is another case showing how important that is.” Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin supported Womble's exoneration, saying, “I apologized to Mr. Womble and to the family of Mr. Roy Bullock, who was the victim. I just felt it was right. The system and the state of North Carolina failed them for 39 years.” Although not sentenced to death, Womble's case shows the risks of capital punishment and the difficulty in discovering innocence.
A recent retrospective in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly on the state's death penalty traced some of the problems that have arisen since Florida resumed executions in 1979. During the execution of Jesse Tafero in 1990, six-inch flames shot from the prisoner’s head, and three separate jolts of electricity were required to kill him. Prison officials attributed it to “inadvertent human error.” In the execution of Pedro Medina in 1997, flames and smoke again spewed out from under the head gear. Ron McAndrew, the warden at the time, recently remarked, “For the next 11 minutes, instead of electrocuting this man, we burned him to death. We literally burned him to death.” Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw called such executions “barbaric spectacles” and said they were “acts more befitting a violent murderer than a civilized state.” Florida also has more exonerations (24) from death row than any other state. It is the only state that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence by a simple majority; most states require unanimity. The state's recent passage of the Timely Justice Act, designed to speed up executions, has raised concerns that it will reduce death row inmates' opportunities to prove their innocence.
DPIC has recently added four podcasts to our new series on important facts about the death penalty in each state. Seven state podcasts are now available: Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Alaska, and Hawaii. We expect to add new episodes each week, with two more coming tomorow (Oct. 17). The series has begun with states that have abolished the death penalty, and focuses on the developments leading to repeal in those states. The issues that brought those states to abolition are often similar to the ones states with the death penalty are facing today, including wrongful convictions, unfairness, and the methods of execution. We hope this new series will be an excellent resource for those interested in the diversity of positions states have taken on this key social question and for students researching their state's history. Our earlier series of podcasts, DPIC on the Issues covers a variety of topics related to the death penalty, including Innocence, Costs, and Lethal Injection. You can listen to all of our podcasts on our Podcasts page or by subscribing on iTunes.
On October 14 a lawsuit was filed by the family of Clayton Lockett (l.) against the state of Oklahoma for damages related to his botched execution in April. The suit alleges “unsound procedures and inadequately trained personnel” and claims that Dr. Johnny Zellmer was the physician present at Lockett's execution. The family asserts that Zellmer, “was willing to, and did in fact, conduct the medical experiment engaged in by Defendants to kill Clayton Lockett regardless of the fact that these chemicals had never been approved or tested by any certifying body.” Oklahoma law makes the names of its execution team, including participating doctors, secret. In Lockett's execution, most of the execution team was out of view of witnesses, but the doctor who pronounced death was visible. Oklahoma has delayed all executions for the remainder of 2014 in order to allow time to obtain lethal injection drugs and prepare personnel. The state revised its execution protocol and remodeled its execution chamber after Lockett's execution, but retained the controversial drug midazolam and secrecy surrounding the sources of drugs and personnel.
In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof highlighted the work of Bryan Stevenson (pictured), referring to him as "America's Nelson Mandela." Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has focused his career on representing indigent defendants, especially those on death row throughout the south. In his new book, Just Mercy, Stevenson tells the story of representing and eventually winning the exoneration of Walter McMillian, a black man unjustly convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of a white woman in Alabama. Kristof asked Stevenson if "such a blatant and racially tinged miscarriage of justice" is less common today. Stevenson said, "If anything, because of the tremendous increase in people incarcerated, I’m confident that we have more innocent people in prison today than 25 years ago."
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections recently gave the media a tour (see video here) of its newly renovated execution chamber. The state spent over $100,000 updating the rooms in response to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. Among the changes are a new gurney (an "electric bed"), a new intercom, and an atomic clock. Previously, communications included colored sticks pushed through a wall, with a red stick indicating something had gone wrong. Correctional officials were secretive about the participation of medical personnel, citing ongoing litigation. The state has said it will reduce the number of media witnesses from twelve to five. The ACLU and two media outlets have asked a judge to stop the state from reducing the number of media witnesses. "They took a process already corrupted by secrecy that had already led to at least one botched execution, and managed somehow to make it even more difficult for the people of Oklahoma and their representatives in the media to know anything about that process," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. (Image: The Guardian, link to video in text above).
An international human rights conference with an emphasis on Asian cultural and religious heritage and a special focus on the death penalty will be held in Manila on October 27-28, 2014. Representatives from the Philippines, India, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the European Union are expected. The conference is being organized by the Department of Justice of the Philippines and the Community of Sant'Egidio, an international Catholic lay association. The event, the first of its kind in Asia, is titled "No justice without life" and is part of Sant'Egidio's "Cities for Life" campaign. President Benino Aquino of the Philippines will offer remarks to open the conference.
On October 10 many international organizations and countries are focusing on the use of the death penalty around the world. The emphasis this year is on mental health issues related to capital punishment, with groups advocating for a ban on the execution of individuals with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities. People with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to manipulation during interrogation and have difficulty assisting in their own defense. Mental health problems can be exacerbated by the extreme isolation on death row. Recently, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a publication, "Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends, and Perspectives," which also discussed international issues related to the death penalty. In a preface to the publication, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "The death penalty has no place in the 21st century. Leaders across the globe must boldly step forward in favour of abolition. I recommend this book in particular to those States that have yet to abolish the death penalty. Together, let us end this cruel and inhumane practice."
On October 8 former death row inmate Manuel Velez (pictured with his son before his arrest) was freed from a Texas prison, following a "no contest" plea to a lesser charge on August 25. Velez had been convicted of killing his girlfriend's one-year-old son but consistently maintained his complete innocence. Velez's conviction was overturned in 2013 because his attorney failed to present evidence that the injuries leading to the child's death were sustained while Velez was 1,000 miles away. Medical records indicated the child's head ballooned in size in the months prior to his death in a manner that could only have been caused by head injuries. During that time, the child's mother was the only adult living with him. Velez's trial was also tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecution presented a witness who claimed that if Velez were not executed, he would be imprisoned under lax conditions with a risk for escape, making him a "future danger." The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said this testimony was false and contrary to known prison regulations, which the prosecution knew. Velez agreed to the no-contest plea so he could rejoin his family without the delay of a retrial, even though a retrial might have fully exonerated him.
County Judge Michael P. Donnelly, a member of Ohio's Death Penalty Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recently called the costs of capital trials "astronomical." He went on to say that a county's budget may be a factor in decisions to seek the death penalty: “[W]ith 88 different prosecutors who have complete discretion on whether to pursue it or not, and you have to draw the inference that, in some counties, it’s not pursued because it’s just not economically feasible.” For example, Summit County is facing a 15% overrun of its court indigent defense budget because of five cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty this year. The most recent capital trial cost the county $102,715, lasted nearly two months, and ended in a sentence of life without parole. Court officials said an aggravated murder case without death penalty charges typically costs $15,000 to $20,000 and lasts only two weeks. The judge added, “There’s no way you can look at the way [the death penalty is] applied in Ohio and draw the conclusion that it’s fair, or that it’s accomplishing what it purports to do — and that is, deliver the most severe punishment to the worst of the worst. It’s just not taking place.”