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NEW VOICES: Leading Forensic Scientist Calls For Halt to Executions Because of Faulty DNA Testing

Posted: July 18, 2003

An editorial by Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, notes that crime labs are overwhelmingly backlogged with work and that deficiencies of personnel, space and equipment in forensic science labs often lead to shoddy practices and erroneous test results, as recently exemplified by the problems uncovered at the Houston Police Department DNA lab (see below). Dr. Wecht notes:

There can be little doubt in the minds of trained, experienced forensic scientists that testing defects, backlog pressures, inadequately qualified personnel, and prosecutorial bias exist in many other DNA labs even though they have not yet been uncovered and publicly reported.

Until these glaring deficiencies are identified, objectively reviewed, and carefully corrected, society cannot expect that justice will be served.

State lawmakers should carefully scrutinize DNA labs that use inferior testing methods that lead to inaccurate results. An immediate freeze on executions is essential until scrupulous federal and state reviews of all DNA labs have been accomplished. This is the only just way to proceed. Close attention to this critical problem will not only lower the risk of executing innocent people, it will also facilitate the capture and conviction of the guilty. (Emphasis added).

 

DNA Evidence Frees Three in New York

Posted: July 18, 2003

For nearly two decades, Dennis Halstead, John Kogut, and John Restivo maintained their innocence in the 1985 murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco. Although DNA testing in the 1990's cast doubt on their guilt, the men remained in jail in New York because a judge deemed the tests not reliable enough to overturn the convictions. Now the men have been freed from prison after prosecutors joined defense attorneys in asking a second judge to vacate the convictions based on more sophisticated DNA evidence showing that semen found on the victim's body was from another man. The new tests were conducted on behalf of The Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City, which uses DNA technology to help free the wrongly convicted, and Centurion Ministries of New Jersey. Following the release of Halstead, Kogut, and Restivo, district attorney Denis Dillon noted that the men didn't get a fair trial, but he said that the state is still considering whether it will retry the men for the murder.

 

NEW RESOURCE: Effective Assistance of Postconviction Counsel

Posted: July 18, 2003

An article in the Wisconsin Law Review, "The Right to Effective Assistance of Capital Postconviction Counsel: Constitutional Implications of Statutory Grants of Capital Counsel" by Celestine Richards McConville, examines the need for experienced and effective counsel during state and federal capital postconviction proceedings. The author notes that, "Despite the important role of postconviction counsel, the United States Supreme Court has held that criminal defendants seeking state postconviction relief possess no constitutional right to counsel. . . .As a result, the existence of any right to counsel in postconviction proceedings depends entirely on the federal and state legislatures." The article lists standards for determining qualified counsel, and it explores how the appointment of effective postconviction counsel can play a crucial role in ensuring accuracy and fairness in death penalty appeals.

 

Ohio Governor Grants Clemency

Posted: July 18, 2003

Ohio Governor Bob Taft has granted clemency to Jerome Campbell, who was scheduled to be executed on June 27th for a 1988 murder in Cincinnati. The clemency, Taft's first since he took office, follows the recommendation of the state's Parole Board, which voted 6-2 in favor of clemency. Defense attorneys maintain that Campbell should be retried because a DNA test he requested from the state showed that blood on his gym shoes introduced as trial evidence was Campbell's own blood, not the victim's. The results marked the first time an Ohio prisoner obtained DNA test results through a state law that allows death row inmates to have DNA testing at the state's expense. In its recommendation, the Parole Board noted that jurors may have spared Campbell's life during his initial trial had they had the opportunity to consider the DNA information.

 

Japanese Legislative Group Proposes Halt to Executions, Study

Posted: July 18, 2003

The Diet Members' League for Abolition of the Death Penalty, a parliamentary group of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, has drafted legislation to replace the death penalty with life in prison. In addition, the bill would establish panels in both Houses of the Diet to study capital punishment. The bill does not propose an immediate abandonment of capital punishment, but instead imposes a four-year moratorium on executions. During this time, the parliamentary panels would be charged with reaching a consensus on the abolition of capital punishment in three years.

In 2001, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution that threatened to review the observer status of Japan and the United States if the two countries failed to take steps toward abolishing the death penalty.

 

NEW RESOURCE: "Last Meal" Details Prisoners' Final Meals, Words

Posted: July 18, 2003

In "Last Meal," Jacquelyn C. Black recreates the last acts of 23 people executed in Texas. Photographs depicting each inmate's last meal are accompanied by descriptions of the inmates, and transcripts of their last words before execution. The book also contains general information about the death penalty.

 

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Amnesty Report Examines Juror Sentencing Concerns in Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman Case

Posted: June 26, 2003

A new Amnesty International report examines the case of Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, a Tennessee death row inmate scheduled for execution on June 18. His case involves questions of inadequate defense and prosecutorial misconduct. The report notes that after learning of exculpatory and mitigating evidence that was kept from the jury at Abdur'Rahman's trial, eight of the original trial jurors said that they no longer have confidence in their sentencing verdict. In addition, a Tennessee Supreme Court judge has pointed out that "none of the judges who have reviewed this case has seriously disputed that Abdur'Rahman's trial counsel was woefully incompetent and demonstrably ineffective." Amnesty's report was released as the organization urged Governor Phil Bredesen to grant executive clemency to Abdur'Rahman.

 

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Amnesty Report Examines Juror Sentencing Concerns in Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman Case

Posted: June 26, 2003

A new Amnesty International report examines the case of Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, a Tennessee death row inmate scheduled for execution on June 18. His case involves questions of inadequate defense and prosecutorial misconduct. The report notes that after learning of exculpatory and mitigating evidence that was kept from the jury at Abdur'Rahman's trial, eight of the original trial jurors said that they no longer have confidence in their sentencing verdict. In addition, a Tennessee Supreme Court judge has pointed out that "none of the judges who have reviewed this case has seriously disputed that Abdur'Rahman's trial counsel was woefully incompetent and demonstrably ineffective." Amnesty's report was released as the organization urged Governor Phil Bredesen to grant executive clemency to Abdur'Rahman.

 

Canadian Juvenile Offender Could Face Death Penalty At Guantanamo Bay

Posted: June 26, 2003

American military officials say that a Canadian teen being held at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba could be eligible for the death penalty. The 17-year-old boy was captured in Afghanistan last July and is accused of killing a U.S. medic during battle as a member of al-Qaida. After 18 months of imprisonment, none of the 700 detainees have been officially charged, but a review of their cases by President George W. Bush is pending. Some of the cases could involve capital charges, and officials note that the government is considering establishing a death row and an execution chamber at the camp for prisoners convicted by upcoming military tribunals.

 

ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW: Saudi Executioner Says He Leads "Normal Life"

Posted: June 26, 2003

Although he beheads up to seven people a day, Saudi Arabia's leading executioner, 42-year-old Muhammad Saad Al-Beshi, says that he leads a normal life and is carrying out God's will. Using a sword given to him as a gift by the government, Al-Beshi has performed public executions since 1998 and has since trained his son, Musaed, to also become an executioner. "An executioner's life, of course, is not all killing. Sometimes it can be amputation of hands and legs. I use a special sharp knife, not a sword. When I cut off a hand I cut it from the joint. If it is a leg the authorities specify where it is to be taken off, so I follow that," Al-Beshi says. Although the majority of executions are eventually carried out, Al-Beshi must first go to the victim's family to ask forgiveness for the criminal, who may then be spared the sword. He states, "I always have that hope, until the very last minute, and I pray to God to give the criminal a new lease of life. I always keep that hope alive." A self-described family man, Al-Beshi says that his profession does not keep him from leading a normal life among family and friends and that he sleeps very well at night. He notes, "They aren't afraid of me when I come back from an execution. Sometimes they help me clean my sword."

 

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