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The North Carolina House of Representatives will soon vote on a two-year moratorium on executions in the state while the death penalty is studied. A moratorium bill passed the full Senate in 2003, but had been previously blocked from coming to a vote in the House.
The Empty Chair: Death Penalty Yes or No is a documentary film produced and directed by Jacqui Lofaro and Victor Teich that tells the stories of four families confronting the loss of loved ones and voicing different perspectives on the death penalty. The movie also features Sister Helen Prejean, an author and spiritual advisor to those condemned to die, and Donald Cabana (pictured), a former death row warden in Mississippi.
Among the family members featured in the film are Renny Cushing, whose father was murdered; Suse and Peter Lowenstein, whose son was killed by a terrorist plane-bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland; Sue Norton, who chose to forgive the man who murdered her step-parents; and Susan Gove Ramunda, a tireless advocate for capital punishment whose daughter was murdered. Each of these family members retraces the crime that took their loved one, the trial that followed, and their personal response to the punishment that was given to the person convicted of the murder.
By a vote of 104-37, members of the Texas House of Representatives tentatively approved the sentencing option of life-without-parole in death penalty cases, an historic action that puts the state closer to including a sentencing alternative offered in nearly every death penalty state. The House is expected to give final passage to the measure on May 25 and the Texas Senate, which passed similar legislation earlier this year, is expected to approve an amended measure before sending the bill to Governor Rick Perry for possible signature into law.
In its annual report on human rights around the world, Amnesty International noted the abolition of the death penalty in five nations in 2004. Last year, Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal and Turkey joined a growing list of countries that have abandoned capital punishment for all crimes. The report stated that such changes are positive signs, noting: "Global activism is a dynamic and growing force. It is also the best hope of achieving freedom and justice for all humanity." The report covers 149 countries and highlights important human rights developments and abuses.
The May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine includes an article on the death penalty in Japan by Charles Lane, Supreme Court reporter for The Washington Post. Lane notes that Japan's death penalty is shrouded in secrecy and culminates in executions outside of all public view. He provides readers with a rare look inside this system and compares that country's policies with U.S. practices and international trends.
The article, "A View to a Kill," notes that although death sentences are slightly on the rise in Japan, it carries out only about two executions a year, far fewer than the 59 people executed in the U.S. in 2004. Japanese prisoners awaiting execution do not know the date of their execution, and the only witnesses to their hangings are representatives of the prosecutor's office.
The Supreme Court today dismissed as “improvidently granted” the case of Jose Medellin, a Mexican national on death row in Texas primarily because President Bush has interevened and ordered state courts to abide by a ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In an unsigned decision, the Justices decided not to review this case as a matter of federal habeas corpus law. They did note, however, that once this matter is reviewed in Texas state courts, the U.S. Supreme Court "would in all likelihood have an opportunity to review the Texas courts’ treatment of the President’s memorandum and [the] Case Concerning Avena and other Mexican Nationals...." (footnote 1).
The World Court had determined that the U.S. government had failed to comply with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations' requirement of consular access for foreigners arrested in the United States, and it directed that U.S. courts consider the claims of almost all of the Mexican nationals on U.S. death rows who had not been afforded this protection. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that it was precluded from giving effect to the ICJ judgment by prior U.S. Supreme Court precedent. After the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but before oral arguments, President Bush issued an Executive Order directing the state courts to give effect to the ICJ ruling and consider the complaints of Medellin. Attorneys for Medellin had asked the Court to stay the case until after Medellin had his hearing in state court. Attorneys for Texas argued that Medellin's federal claim was barred on procedural grounds and that President Bush does not have the constitutional authority to order Texas courts to comply with the international court's judgment. In today’s dismissal, the Court cited the President’s Executive Order as a chief reason for not reviewing the case, and reserved the right to hear a future appeal once the case had run its course in state court.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled that a man whose attorney slept through portions of his 1992 death penalty trial should not get a new trial because he had another less experienced attorney who remained awake. In its ruling, the Court denied George McFarland's (pictured) claim of ineffectiveness of counsel and upheld his death sentence. "We conclude that, although one of his attorneys slept through portions of his trial, applicant was not deprived of the assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment because his second attorney was present and an active advocate at all
The latest Gallup Poll found support for the death penalty at 74%, a figure equal to the level in 2003 and less than the 80% support registered in 1994. The poll found that support for capital punishment dropped to 56% when respondents were given the alternative sentencing option of life without parole, less than the 61% support in 1997 with the same question. The percentage of respondents who believe an innocent person has been executed in recent years has dropped from 73% in 2003 to 59% this year. (The Gallup Organization Press Release, May 19, 2005).
A diverse and bipartisan group of more than 150 prominent North Carolinians have urged the General Assembly to pass a measure that would halt executions for two years while a study commission examines the state's capital punishment system. A letter to the state's top political leaders urging passage of the moratorium bill was signed by the group, which included nine former North Carolina Supreme Court Justices, former prosecutors, elected officials, religious leaders, business leaders, murder victims' family members, and noted North Carolina authors.
A new study from the Texas Defender Service calls for substantial changes in the way Texas handles capital murder cases. The report recommends that Texas implement a series of reforms, including uniform investigation procedures, a life-without-parole sentencing option, and a statewide public defender's office.
Drawing from recommendations made by the blue-ribbon Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment that was established to address wrongful convictions in that state, the Texas Defender report notes, "Texas has executed 340 people in the modern death penalty era, 28 times the number executed by Illinois, yet its nine exonerations lag far behind those of Illinois. Texas is at unacceptable risk for wrongful conviction and execution, an especially troubling fact given its status as the undisputed leader in executions among the 38 states with the death penalty."
The report, "Minimizing Risk, A Blueprint for Death Penalty Reform in Texas," was sent to Texas Governor Rick Perry's Criminal Justice Advisory Council, which was created this year to recommend changes that could improve the state's criminal justice system.