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Wrongful Convictions Raise Concerns About New York's Death Penalty

Posted: January 24, 2005

In a recent op-ed in the Albany Times Union, criminal justice expert Scott Christianson asked that state leaders consider New York's well-documented problems with wrongful convictions before trying to fix the state's unconstitutional death penalty statute. Christianson, a former state criminal justice official, documented more than 130 cases (most of them involving convictions since 1980), in which innocent persons were convicted (mostly of murder) and sentenced to long prison terms in New York. Experts have found that from 1 to 10 percent of those convicted of a felony in New York are actually innocent, and these proven cases are "simply the tip of the iceberg," according to Christianson. He wrote further: "In the past, prosecutors didn't have to worry as much that their mistakes would ever come to light. Today, however, with the advent of DNA and possibly other definitive technologies, actual innocence in some cases threatens to become positively established even after an offender has been convicted or even legally executed. ... Any proven wrongful conviction can expose serious injustices and undermine respect for law enforcement."

Among Christianson's recommendations for addressing these concerns are reforms such as requiring a specific state agency to maintain a database of defendants who have been found wrongfully convicted and convening a blue-ribbon panel to hold public hearings and report its findings. Christianson also believes that New York should require the videotaping of police interrogations, overhaul its public defense system, and hold those involved in improperly prosecuting cases accountable for their actions. Based on the studies and data Christianson concluded, "The inevitability of error is just one reason why the death penalty is a bad idea. But it's one that fair-minded citizens . . . can understand."

 

Kentucky to Conduct Hearing on Whether Lethal Injection Is Humane

Posted: January 21, 2005

In Kentucky, a Franklin Circuit Court judge will hear evidence for possibly five days in April on whether the state's method of executing prisoners is humane. Medical experts will testify about the drugs, dosage and training of the people who administer the 3-drug lethal-injection cocktail. Lawyers for condemned inmates Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr. and Ralph Baze sued the state in August, saying Kentucky's method of execution violates a prisoner's Eighth Amendment right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

Among the issues to be reviewed are the type of chemicals used in lethal injection, the dosage, and how much of the drugs make it into the body of the condemned. Kentucky has executed only one person, Eddie Lee Harper, by lethal injection, in 1999. In court papers, Baze and Bowling's lawyers have argued that there is more than a 50 percent chance that Harper was awake when the third drug was administered, meaning he could have felt pain. But because the state uses a drug called Pavulon, which paralyzes the muscles, Harper could not have communicated that he was in pain.

 

Georgia's Death Row Faces a Crisis Without Adequate Legal Representation

Posted: January 19, 2005
Seven people on Georgia's death row are without legal representation as they face their final rounds of appeal. Georgia does not guarantee publicly funded lawyers for death row inmates beyond the first round of appeal. According to many legal experts, including retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Clark, the failure to provide legal counsel increases the likelihood of a wrongful execution. "It's a very important check in the system that's missing. There can be slips in the process along the way. When you've got a
 

NEW VOICES: Understanding Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

Posted: January 18, 2005

In a recent Hartford Courant opinion piece, psychiatrist Robert C. Goodwin spoke about the mental illness afflicting Michael Ross, who is scheduled for execution in Connecticut on January 26. Dr. Goodwin was a psychiatric consultant to the state of Connecticut from 1983-2001 and took part in Michael Ross' evaluation and treatment over the years, appearing as an expert witness in Ross' second trial. Dr. Goodwin believes the execution should be stopped:

Although demonstrably sane, Ross suffers from a clear-cut, well-documented case of the most severe sort of paraphilia (sexual deviation). This is not just my view. It is the considered opinion of almost every psychiatrist and mental health professional who has examined him, including at least one who customarily testifies for the prosecution. In Ross' case, the condition resulted in intense, constant and virtually irresistible violent fantasies toward women.

 

Kansas Death Penalty Advisory Committee Releases Report

Posted: January 18, 2005

A recent report issued by the Kansas Judicial Council Death Penalty Advisory Committee examines the state's application of capital punishment and the hefty price tag of seeking the death penalty. The Committee found that since Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994 there were 44 potential capital cases involving minority victims. However, none of these cases resulted in a death sentence. Of the eight defendants in Kansas who did receive death sentences, all of their victims were white.

 

Los Angeles Times Urges Clemency for Beardslee While Challenging the Arbitrariness of the System

Posted: January 17, 2005
Just days before the scheduled execution of Donald Beardslee in California, the Los Angeles Times has called for his clemency while questioning the even-handedness of the whole system. The editorial concludes that the death penalty is a "lie" to the people of California:


Donald Beardslee was 38 years old in 1981 when he shot one woman and strangled and slashed another in San Mateo County, retaliation for a soured drug deal. He is now 61. So many years have passed since a jury sentenced him to die in the gas chamber that the infamous green room at
 

Former Death Row Inmate Wilbert Rideau Freed After 44 Years

Posted: January 16, 2005
Following a manslaughter conviction for a crime committed when he was 19 years old in Louisiana in 1961, Wilbert Rideau, the acclaimed prison journalist, was set free by the trial judge on Saturday, January 15. His conviction carries a maximum sentence of 21 years and Rideau has already served 44 years in prison, primarily in Angola. Rideau, who is black, was originally convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury for killing a white woman. His death sentence was overturned when the U.S.
 

Former Death Row Inmate Wilbert Rideau Freed After 44 Years

Posted: January 16, 2005
Following a manslaughter conviction for a crime committed when he was 19 years old in Louisiana in 1961, Wilbert Rideau, the acclaimed prison journalist, was set free by the trial judge on Saturday. January 15. His conviction carries a maximum sentence of 21 years and Rideau has already served 44 years in prison, primarily in Angola. Rideau, who is black, was originally convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury for killing a white woman. His death sentence was overturned when the U.S.
 

9th Circuit Weighs Lethal Injection Challenge in California

Posted: January 14, 2005

Note: The Court of Appeals denied the challenge to California's lethal injection process. Just one week before the scheduled execution of California death row inmate Donald Beardslee, judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit are considering a suit filed by the ACLU of California, Death Penalty Focus, and Beardslee's defense attorneys concerning the state's use of a paralyzing chemical called Pavulon in lethal injections. Beardslee's attorneys said that Pavulon could prevent an inmate from crying out in pain, and that it could mask suffering caused by asphyxiation and the searing sensation caused by the last administered chemical in the lethal injection process, potassium chloride. Some of the judges expressed concerns about the state's secretiveness and lack of detail regarding the chemical: "You're putting us in an awkward position," said Judge Sidney Thomas to the state's lawyer. "Some other states don't use it." Defense attorneys argued that the purpose of including Pavulon is to keep the public in the dark about whether the state's lethal injection method is inhumane. A ruling is still pending regarding this appeal, and a separate bid for clemency from the governor will be heard soon by the state's parole board. (Sacramento Bee, January 13, 2005). This would be the 11th execution in California since the death penalty was reinstated 30 years ago. There are 638 people on the state's death row.

 

New Resources Available on DPIC's Web Site

Posted: January 13, 2005

Among the new resources available on DPIC's Web site are summaries of death penalty cases the U.S. Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear, including the case involving Mexican citizens on U.S. death rows. The upcoming cases summarized include Medellin v. Dretke, Bell v. Thompson, and Mitchell v. Stumpf.

 

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