New Voices - Law Enforcement

Law Enforcement Officer Changes Views Because of Death Penalty's Risks

Michael May served as a Baltimore City police officer and as a military police officer. He formerly supported capital punishment, but changed his stance upon learning of innocent people who had been sentenced to death. Mr. May testified before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. He also published an op-ed in the Baltimore Examiner explaining how his views changed and why he supports for repeal of Maryland’s death penalty. The full op-ed appears below:

Time to end the death penalty in Maryland
By Michael May

I spent 10 years as a law enforcement officer, including seven in the Baltimore Police Department. So I am no stranger to violence.

Indeed, my years surrounded by senseless crime filled me with outrage and the desire for revenge — including the death penalty.

But I have learned a lot since then, including the scary fact that a single mistake could be mean the execution of an innocent person.

As someone who has dedicated my life to enforcing the law, I can't live with that. I testified before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment this fall, sharing my journey from death penalty supporter to a supporter of repeal. And last month the Commission validated my experience by voting for the same - the repeal of Maryland's death penalty. It was a smart decision and I hope the legislature will move quickly to enact it.

As I said, my opposition to the death penalty evolved. During my years in Vietnam and later as a military policeman in Louisiana, I was exposed to violence as a matter of routine. My anger at those who would harm innocent people boiled over. Then, working in some of the poorest and crime-ridden neighborhoods of Baltimore only strengthened my feeling that some people were simply beyond redemption. It was a fairly simple conclusion for me to think that the most evil people in our society deserved the death penalty. In my view, those who opposed it were muddleheaded, knee-jerk liberals who were just plain wrong.

I felt that way until about ten years ago. The last decade has seen a broad shift in public opinion on the death penalty, and I was not immune to the new information that was coming out about innocent people being sentenced to death. I was also struck by a talk on the death penalty by then Archbishop of Baltimore, William Cardinal Keeler, when he spoke at a mass at my parish in Towson. I realized then that I had to learn more.

I read about Kirk Noble Bloodsworth — a man sentenced to die in Maryland for a crime he did not commit. I could not begin to imagine the absolute horror of languishing on death row an innocent man. I could not imagine the anticipation of being lifted onto a gurney, strapped down and injected with a combination of lethal drugs by an incompetent nurse's aide — knowing all the time that I had done nothing wrong.

As I read about Mr. Bloodsworth and other innocent people that came close to execution, my doubts about the death penalty grew. Human beings are simply not right 100 percent of the time. No amount of reforms, technological advances, or legal procedures can undo that fact. If the death penalty remains, some state, perhaps even our state, will kill an innocent person. Can we live with that?

Like many people, I have struggled to make sense of this issue. The death penalty seems like a proportionate punishment for a grievous crime. At least it brings justice to victims in the face of evil. But does it? My religion teaches that the path to true peace is through forgiveness. John Paul II traveled to an Italian prison to forgive the man who shot him. The death penalty keeps us from following that noble example. It certainly does not bring back or even honor the dead. It also does not ennoble the living. It does nothing to assuage the sorrow of the victim's loved ones. In fact, as I sat through the commission hearings waiting to testify, I heard from victims' families who said the opposite — that the death penalty's uncertainty only brought them more grief.

The closer you look at it, the less the death penalty makes any sense. As the Maryland commission found, the risk of executing an innocent person is just too high to justify maintaining a punishment that does not deter, costs too much, and harms victims' families.

And as a former police officer, I would add that the death penalty is not needed to protect the public. It is time for Maryland to make the common-sense choice and replace the death penalty with life without parole.

Michael May, of Rodgers Forge, is an attorney and formerly served as a Baltimore City police officer and a military police officer.

(M. May, “Time to end the death penalty in Maryland,” The Baltimore Examiner, December 1, 2008).

30 FBI Agents Call for Pardon in VA Case with Death Penalty Implications

On November 10 in Richmond, Virginia, thirty former FBI agents held a press conference calling for the pardon of four sailors, known as the Norfolk Four (pictured), who were convicted of rape and murder. Their convictions were based mainly on their own confessions, which were apparently made out of fear that they might otherwise receive the death penalty. The FBI agents pointed out that DNA and forensic evidence now points to a prison inmate who has confessed as the sole perpetrator of the crimes. They asked Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to pardon the men. “After careful review of the evidence we have arrived at one unequivocal conclusion: The Norfolk Four are innocent,” said Jay Cochran, a former assistant director of the F.B.I. and former special agent who served at the bureau for 27 years. “We believe a tragic mistake has occurred in the case of these four Navy men, and we are calling on Governor Kaine to grant them immediate pardons.”

“We are not bleeding hearts, and we don’t take this type of public action lightly,” said Cochran. “However, we also believe that law enforcement has an obligation to protect the most innocent from wrongful conviction.” The agents joined a long list of notable people calling for a pardon, including 4 former Virginia attorneys general, 12 former state and federal judges and prosecutors, and a past president of the Virginia Bar Association.

The confessions were obtained from the sailors after they were threatened with the death penalty if they did not cooperate. Although all four quickly recanted, defense attorney George Kendall said the police elicited the first false confession and then used it with the threat of the death penalty to set off a “domino effect” of more false confessions. The detective who elicited the confessions had been reprimanded on a prior occasion for eliciting false ones.

After the sailors’ arrests, another man, Omar Ballard, confessed in a written letter from prison bragging to a friend that he alone committed the crimes. His letter provided a detailed account of the killing, while the sailors' confessions contained inaccurate and conflicting information. His DNA matched the evidence from the scene, and none of the arrested sailors had DNA that matched the evidence.

Governor Kaine is currently reviewing the clemency petition and has declined comment on the case.

(I. Urbina, “Retired F.B.I. Agents Join Cause of 4 Sailors,” The New York Times, November 11, 2008) (emphasis added).

Former San Quentin Warden Says Death Penalty "Detracts crucial resources from programs that could trult make our communities safe"

The former warden of San Quentin prison in California, Jeanne Woodford (pictured), regrets having taken part in executions and has called for replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Woodford notes that after each execution, "someone on the staff would ask, 'Is the world safer because of what we did tonight?' We knew the answer: No." The full article can be found below.

Death row realism: Do executions make us safer? San Quentin's former warden says no.
By Jeanne Woodford

As the warden of San Quentin, I presided over four executions. After each one, someone on the staff would ask, "Is the world safer because of what we did tonight?"

We knew the answer: No.

I worked in corrections for 30 years, starting as a correctional officer and working my way up to warden at San Quentin and then on to the top job in the state -- director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. During those years, I came to believe that the death penalty should be replaced with life without the possibility of parole.

I didn't reach that conclusion because I'm soft on crime. My No. 1 concern is public safety. I want my children and grandchildren to have the safety and freedom to pursue their dreams. I know from firsthand experience that some people are dangerous and must be removed from society forever -- people such as Robert Lee Massie.

I presided over Massie's execution in 2001. He was first sentenced to death for the 1965 murder of a mother of two. But when executions were temporarily banned in 1972, his sentence was changed to one that would allow parole, and he was released in 1978. Months later, he killed a 61-year-old liquor store owner and was returned to death row.

For supporters of the death penalty, Massie is a poster child. Yet for me, he stands out among the executions I presided over as the strongest example of how empty and futile the act of execution is.

I remember that night clearly. It was March 27, 2001. I was the last person to talk to Massie before he died. After that, I brought the witnesses in. I looked at the clock to make sure it was after midnight. I got a signal from two members of my staff who were on the phone with the state Supreme Court and the U.S. attorney general's office to make sure there were no last-minute legal impediments to the execution. There were none, so I gave the order to proceed. It took several minutes for the lethal injections to take effect.

I did my job, but I don't believe it was the right thing to have done. We should have condemned Massie to permanent imprisonment -- that would have made the world safer. But on the night we executed him, when the question was asked, "Did this make the world safer?" the answer remained no. Massie needed to be kept away from society, but we did not need to kill him.

Why should we pay to keep him locked up for life? I hear that question constantly. Few people know the answer: It's cheaper -- much, much cheaper than execution.

I wish the public knew how much the death penalty affects their wallets. California spends an additional $117 million each year pursuing the execution of those on death row. Just housing inmates on death row costs an additional $90,000 per prisoner per year above what it would cost to house them with the general prison population.

A statewide, bipartisan commission recently concluded that we must spend $100
million more each year to fix the many problems with capital punishment in California. Total price tag: in excess of $200 million-a-year more than simply condemning people to life without the possibility of parole.

If we condemn the worst offenders, like Massie, to permanent imprisonment, resources now spent on the death penalty could be used to investigate unsolved homicides, modernize crime labs and expand effective violence prevention programs, especially in at-risk communities. The money also could be used to intervene in the lives of children at risk and to invest in their education -- to stop future victimization.

As I presided over Massie's execution, I thought about the abuse and neglect he endured as a child in the foster care system. We failed to keep him safe, and our failure contributed to who he was as an adult. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to kill him, what if we spent that money on other foster children so that we stop producing men like Massie in the first place?

As director of corrections, I visited Watts and met with some ex-offenders. I learned that the prison system is paroling 300 people every week into the neighborhood without a plan or resources for success. How can we continue to spend more than $100 million a year seeking the execution of a handful of offenders while we fail to meet the basic safety needs of communities like Watts?

It is not realistic to think that Watts and neighborhoods like it will ever get well if we can't -- or won't -- support them in addressing the problems they face.

To say that I have regrets about my involvement in the death penalty is to let myself off the hook too easily. To take a life in order to prove how much we value another life does not strengthen our society. It is a public policy that devalues our very being and detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our communities safe.
- - - - -

Jeanne Woodford is the former director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the former warden of San Quentin State Prison.

(J. Woodford, "Death Row Realism, Do Executions Make Us Safer?", LA Times, October 2, 2008).

Law Enforcement Officials say "California's Death Penalty is Broken"

On March 28, two letters were sent to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice--one from members of the law enforcement community and the other from judges, raising concerns about the state's death penalty. Thirty law enforcement officers, including current and former prosecutors, police chiefs and other officers, signed a letter stating that “California’s death penalty is broken.” The letter cites multiple reasons why the state’s death penalty system is not working, such as the excessive costs of capital cases, the risk of wrongful convictions, and the stress placed on victims’ families. The signers noted, “By pursuing life without parole sentences instead of death, resources now spent on the death penalty prosecutions and appeals could be used to investigate unsolved homicides, modernize crime labs, and expand effective violence prevention programs.” Signatories included San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, the Police Chief of Newark Ray Samuels, former Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Jeanne Woodford, former Deputy Attorney General John Duree, and eleven current and former Deputy District Attorneys from counties across California.

In addition, seventeen current and former judges signed a letter to the Commission stating, “We write to express our concerns about the current application and administration of the death penalty in California.” The letter points to the incredible strain capital cases have put on the entire judicial system in California.  The letter concludes, “Any attempt to reform California’s death penalty must be comprehensive, and must ensure a means of providing sustained and sufficient resources for the entire system. We urge the Commission to consider recommending a moratorium on the death penalty in California until systemic reforms are implemented.” The signatory judges served on the California Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal, and/or Superior Court in California.

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice was created in 2004 to investigate wrongful convictions, and to recommend reforms to make California’s criminal justice system “just, fair, and accurate.” The letters were delivered in time for the Commission’s third and final public death penalty hearing last week.

(“47 Members of Law Enforcement from California Cite Problems with the Death Penalty and Call for Reforms,” Death Penalty Focus Press Release, March 27, 2008; copies of the letters are available on press release).

Police Chief says "Death Penalty isn't anywhere on my list"

In an op-ed in the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, police chief James Abbott (pictured) stated that the death penalty is broken beyond repair and that the extra money spent pursuing executions could be better spent on crime prevention and the needs of victims.  Abbott is the Police Chief of West Orange, New Jersey, and he served on the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission.  He was a longtime supporter of the death penalty but eventually concluded that abolition was “just plain common sense.” Chief Abbott noted, “I no longer believe that you can fix the death penalty. Six months of study opened my eyes to its shocking reality. I learned that the death penalty throws millions of dollars down the drain -- money that I could be putting directly to work fighting crime every day -- while dragging victims' families through a long and torturous process that only exacerbates their pain.”

Abbott noted that the death penalty cost New Jersey a quarter of a billion dollars over the past 30 years, and he believes this money could be better spent helping victims’ families or funding preventative law enforcement measures. “As a police chief,” Abbott writes, “I find this use of state resources offensive.... Give a law enforcement professional like me that $250 million, and I'll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn't anywhere on my list.”

New Jersey’s legislature voted in December, 2007 to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole. Governor Corzine signed the bill into law, making New Jersey the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty in more than 40 years.

(“Less money, more pain and injustice,” by James Abbott, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 20, 2008).

Veteran Police Officer Concludes 'death penalty is inefficient and extravagantly expensive'

Norm Stamper, a 35-year veteran police officer from San Diego, recently wrote in The Mercury News that from his experience, "the death penalty is inefficient and extravagantly expensive.” Instead of spending millions of dollars on the death penalty, Stamper writes, “Spending scarce public resources on after-school programs, mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment, education, more crime labs and new technologies, or on hiring more police officers, would truly help create safer communities.”

Stamper cites the Los Angeles Times, which found that the death penalty in California costs $114 million per year beyond the cost of keeping prisoners in prison for life. The New York Times, he adds, has reported that the states without the death penalty have lower average rates of homicide than those with the death penalty, showing that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Furthermore, the sentencing of 124 innocent people to death row has demonstrated the inefficiency and inaccuracies of the death penalty system.

(“Death penalty wastes money, while failing to reduce crime” by Norm Stamper, The Mercury News, Nov. 19, 2007).

Former Texas Warden Reconsiders the Death Penalty

Jim Willet, former warden of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Walls Unit where Texas executions take place, recently described his experiences to the Dallas Observer as emotionally difficult for him. As warden during 1998-2001, three of the busiest years for Texas’ death chamber, Willet oversaw 89 executions.

"The first time is unbelievable," he told the Observer. "You have this healthy person–this person who was able to just jump up on the gurney–and you've said, 'Kill this person,' and someone's fixin' to. You're about to put someone to death in front of all these people. It's an overwhelming feeling. I can't describe it."

When asked whether he believed that any of the 89 executed inmates may have been innocent, Willett stated, "I would hope not, with all of the appeals, the process that takes years and the judges and everybody looking at it…. But I'm also clear that you're going to have mistakes if humans are messing with it–it's just a fact."

Jim Willett kept journals of the executions he presided over, and some entries were used in a book called Warden: Prison Life and Death From the Inside Out. Willett and the staff of the Walls Unit also participated in Witness to an Execution, a National Public Radio documentary that won a Peabody Award.

Texas, like other states with the death penalty, appears to be in a de facto moratorium on executions due to the upcoming Supreme Court case of Baze v. Rees in which two Kentucky inmates are challenging the states’ lethal injection protocol. If the moratorium continues, Willett would not oppose it. However, he stated, "I do wonder sometimes, the people who are guilty of real violent murders or crimes against children, why do they deserve to live?" he says. "But maybe we don't have the right to ask that–I don't know. For me, it's up to the people of Texas, whatever they want to do. If they said, 'Let's not have executions,' I'd be fine with that."

(“Former Warden Reconsiders Executions” by Megan Feldman, Dallas Observer).

Former Florida Prison Warden Calls for End to Death Penalty

Eleven years after supervising his first execution as at the Florida State Prison at Starke, former warden Ron McAndrew (pictured) is urging an end to the death penalty. McAndrew is calling on states to abandon capital punishment and replace it with life without parole, a punishment he notes is worse than the death penalty and protects states from executing an innocent person. He observes, "(T)he most severe punishment you could ever give anyone would be to lock them in a little cage made out of concrete and steel ... with a steel cot, a mattress that is 2 inches thick, a stainless steel toilet that does not have a lid, and you leave them there for the rest of their natural life. There can't be a more severe punishment than that."

McAndrew oversaw three executions during his tenure at Starke, including the infamous botched electric chair execution of Pedro Medina in 1997. After that experience, he led Florida's transition from the electric chair to lethal injection before retiring from the Florida Department of Corrections. Though he has started a new career as a corrections consultant, McAndrew notes that he will never be able to leave behind the experience of putting people to death. He says that the process leading up to an execution and the act itself was a horrifying experience and that he now realizes the death penalty is "an absolute political manipulation - a politician's best toy." He said that after careful reflection on his role in carrying out executions he now realizes, "I had no business standing there."

(Tallahassee Democrat, June 29, 2007)

Former FBI Chief Expresses Concerns about Innocence and the Death Penalty

In a guest column published in the Jurist, former FBI Director William S. Sessions underscored the importance of making DNA testing available for those facing execution. He also encouraged states to thoroughly review their capital punishment systems and to make reforms to ensure greater reliability. DNA testing, he noted, has revealed that police often do not have the right suspect in serious crimes. In about 25% of the cases where DNA was available and a suspect had been arrested, testing showed that the wrong person was being pursued. He applauded New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s recent proposal to expand access to DNA testing and an Ohio Supreme Court ruling liberalizing DNA testing for inmates. Sessions noted:

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer recently made headlines by announcing a plan to expand New York’s DNA database to include genetic samples from those convicted of all felonies and most misdemeanors. The Governor’s proposal – which would immediately increase the size of New York’s database by at least twenty percent – would also require that samples be taken from all New Yorkers in prison, on probation or parole, or registered as sex offenders. A significant provision of the proposal would greatly expand the ability of inmates to obtain DNA testing that might prove their innocence. The Ohio Supreme Court addressed a similar issue this April when it struck down part of a state law that gave prosecutors control over which inmates were given DNA tests.
. . .

When I became Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1987, few in the criminal justice system knew much about DNA, and nobody fully understood how it would revolutionize our work. Shortly after I became Director the FBI established a DNA laboratory we hoped could be used to verify that a suspect had indeed committed a crime. During my years as a U.S. Attorney and federal judge in Texas I had seen rapists and murderers walk free for lack of biological evidence; these were the cases I had in mind when we established the laboratory in Washington, D.C.
. . .

By October 1988 the FBI’s DNA lab had completed an analysis of biological evidence in 100 active cases. My colleagues and I anticipated that this federal initiative would enable local prosecutors to address questions that had previously been left unanswered. We were right, but not entirely in the manner we expected.

The results of those first 100 tests astonished me. In thirty percent of cases the DNA gathered during the investigation did not match the DNA of the suspect. In three out of ten cases not only did we have the wrong person, but the guilty person was still at large. In capital cases the stakes were unnervingly high: the prospect of executing an innocent person was only slightly more appalling than the prospect of murderers and rapists walking free, unidentified and dangerous.

The statistics today are roughly the same as they were 19 years ago. In approximately 25 percent of cases the genetic evidence recovered during an investigation does not match the DNA of the suspect. Oftentimes this discrepancy is discovered before irreparable harm is done to either the investigation or the suspect; however, too often we learn of our mistake only after time, money, and sometimes lives have been wasted on empty pursuits.

DNA evidence has supported more than 30,000 prosecutions and has led to more than 200 exonerations, including those of fifteen death row inmates. This last group, Americans sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit, stands to gain the most from greater access to DNA evidence. Though most prosecutors are dedicated to the pursuit of justice, for years too many have hidden existing DNA evidence or denied reasonable requests for genetic testing. Granting death row inmates access to DNA testing should be only one of many steps taken to confirm the guilt of suspects of capital crimes; the finality of the death penalty demands that our dedication to honest justice be absolute.
. . .

I applaud both the New York proposal and the Ohio Supreme Court decision regarding DNA testing. However, much remains to be done to improve our country’s criminal justice system, especially in capital cases. Reviews of state capital punishment systems have been ordered from the bench and governors’ mansions around the country, and with good reason. I encourage state legislators considering systemic reforms to consider the recommendations of the Constitution Project’s Death Penalty Committee, a bipartisan coalition of policy experts, legal scholars, and former government officials. The Committee includes opponents and supporters of capital punishment, and I have joined them in calling for substantive reform of how America tries and sentences suspects in capital cases. The delivery of justice also requires competent, well-trained, well-resourced lawyers for defendants in death penalty cases while simultaneously reserving capital punishment for only the most heinous of crimes.

(W. Sessions, "DNA Evidence and the Death Penalty," Jurist, May 30, 2007).

Law Enforcement Officer Says Death Penalty is Too Expensive and Does Not Deter Crime

Jim Davidsaver, a 20-year veteran with the Lincoln Police Department in Nebraska, recently wrote a column outlining his support for legislation that would have repealed the state's death penalty. Davidsaver said he supported the measure, which failed to pass into law, because the death penalty does not deter crime and is too expensive. He noted that in his years of service with the police force he witnessed many horrific crime scenes, but none of the accused murderers was ever deterred by the death penalty. He wrote:

As a career law enforcement officer, I considered myself an interested spectator as the Legislature debated the bill, LB476, sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers, that would have replaced the state's death penalty with mandatory life imprisonment without parole and allowed the victim’s family to seek restitution.
. . .

During my career, which includes 10+ years as a certified crime scene technician, I have experienced countless violent crime scenes where the perpetrators inflicted horrific injury, pain and suffering on their victims. Of the accused murderers my fellow officers and I have brought to justice, I do not believe any of them was deterred in the least by Nebraska's death penalty.
. . .

One facet of the issue that is rarely mentioned is the economic cost of capital punishment. Many who oppose the death penalty are quick to mention the "cost" in abstract sociological terms, referring to the negative impact on society when reverting to "an eye for an eye" retribution and punishment.

I do not know whether it is proper or ethical to base a death penalty discussion on simple economic terms, but this aspect deserves consideration.

[C]apital punishment cases are the most expensive cases by far. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty estimates the average cost of a single death penalty case, from arrest to execution, ranges from $1 million to $3 million. Other studies have estimated this cost as high as $7 million. This compares to an average of $500,000 for a life imprisonment case, including incarceration. The mandatory fiscal note attached to LB476 shows the attorney's general office estimates no fiscal impact if the law is adopted. The Department of Correctional Services stated the fiscal impact cannot be determined.
. . .

Whether you agree with it or not, it is an absolute requirement to maintain the integrity of the system and ensure justice is served. Removing the death penalty variable from the justice equation should reduce the overall cost.

((Lincoln) Journal Star, March 25, 2007).

Law Enforcement Officials Gather in Maryland to Oppose Death Penalty

Corrections officials, prosecutors and police chiefs recently gathered in Annapolis, Maryland, to voice support for a legislative measure that would repeal the state's death penalty. "It is a human system, and because it is fallible and because it is human, it makes mistakes. Executions make those mistakes irreversible," said Matthew Campbell, a former deputy state's attorney for Montgomery and Howard counties. Gary J. Hilton, a former warden at the Trenton State Prison in New Jersey, added that at one time he was a "vigorous supporter" of capital punishment, but then he came to believe that the money it costs to carry out a death sentence would be better spent on improving prison equipment, updating facilities, and training staff. He said life without parole is the toughest punishment, noting, "Nothing in this world could be more horrible than growing old and dying in jail." Partrick V. Murphy, a former police commissioner of Detroit, Washington and New York, added, "The risk of mistake in administering the death penalty is frightening." In all, about 50 law enforcement officials signed a public statement backing the repeal measure.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has voiced support for the repeal bill, arguing that capital punishment is unjust and costly. The legislation would replace the death penalty with life without parole.

(Baltimore Sun, March 14, 2007). The former Attorney General of Maryland, Joseph Curran, also supports repeal of the death penalty.

UPDATE: The bill to abolish the death penalty was defeated in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee by a vote of 5-5 on March 15, 2007.

Former Ohio Corrections Director Calls for Ending Death Penalty

Reggie Wilkinson (pictured), who witnessed 19 executions during his 33 years with the Ohio Department of Corrections, recently stated that he would like to see executions ended in the state. Wilkinson, who served for 15 years as Director of the Department of Corrections and advocated for abandoning the state's electric chair and replacing it with lethal injection, noted, "I would not oppose the abolition of the death penalty. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world with the death penalty - on the books in 38 states. . . . It's not so much related to morality as it is related to the administration of justice. To quote an over-used saying, 'Why should you kill people who kill people to show that killing is wrong?'" He added that the death penalty does not deter murders and it does not save taxpayer dollars, given the costly supervision needed on death row and the lengthy court appeals.

(Dayton Daily News, January 15, 2007)

Former Death Row Warden Changes His Views

Dennis O'Neill had been an assistant warden at Florida State Prison for two years and warden at Union Correctional Institution for 7 years, both death row prisons. He eventually left the correctional system and became an Episcopal priest. He was assigned back to the town of Starke, Florida, where death row inmates reside. As a correctional officer, he had been involved in more than a dozen executions over 14 years, but now O'Neill opposes the death penalty.

"For years, I told myself it was the law of the land, and went along with it," he says. "But several things really got to me: the arbitrary nature of who was executed. The fact that the person strapped in the chair or gurney often showed genuine, heartfelt change and was rarely the same person who committed the crime. And, my realization that antiseptic killing is as bad as raw and naked killing. "

"I didn't want to be a part of it anymore," he says. "I realized I wanted to be part of a healing, merciful world, not a punishing one." His congregation has also been moved by his new message.

(St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 23, 2006).

Former Death Row Warden Calls for Clemency on Eve of Execution

The former warden of the Virginia prison that houses the state's death row inmates has called for clemency for a man about to be executed on November 9. Page True was warden of the Sussex I State Prison and knew death row inmate John Schmitt for over 4 years. "The crime was just terrible," True said, "but there's a lot worse inmates that I've dealt with in my 36 years in prison systems than Mr. Schmitt."

True, who described himself "as hardcore as they come," said there were many more inmates at the same prison serving life sentences and that "compared to some of them, [Schmitt is] a hell of a lot better inmate. We have the security and internal control in prisons to handle a guy like Schmitt," True said.

"I just don't think he should be put to death," he said. "I don't want to diminish his conduct. It was terrible. Somebody died and families are suffering. . . . But this guy is no worse than most of those other guys in these prisons [with] life sentences, and that's my feeling."

(F. Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nov. 9, 2006).

New Jersey Law Enforcement Official Discusses Problems with the Death Penalty

Edward Johnson is a former FBI Agent who currently oversees investigative work for the Union County (NJ) Prosecutor's Office. He recently expressed his personal opinions about the state's death penalty. He concluded that in New Jersey public opinion may now have moved to the point where the death penalty will be abolished. He noted, in part:

Quite frankly, it's the time lag between conviction and execution that militates against any deterrent effect. Even in states with an active death penalty, it's probably about 15 or 20 years from conviction to execution. By that time, most of the public has forgotten about the original crime that warranted the death. We get neither deterrence value or closure for the victim's family, just endless legal wrangling.
. . .

Most murder cases hinge on eyewitnesses and confessions. Sometimes they rely on the more questionable evidence of informers and jail-house snitches. Most of those wrongly convicted have been sentenced on just these types of evidence. Eyewitnesses have tremendous jury appeal, but they are fallible. Confessions, properly obtained, are great evidence. Coerced confessions aren't worth the paper they're written on, but they are compelling. In fact, that's why many jurisdictions now video or audiotape the entire interview process. We've seen that despite the best efforts of police, attorneys and courts, the guilty are not always punished and the innocent are not always set free.

These issues and the mistaken convictions we've seen are the driving forces against the death penalty nationwide, and rightly so.

(Home News Tribune, Oct. 10, 2006).

Former FBI Director Warns Against Stripping Death Penalty Appeals

The former Director of the FBI, William Sessions, along with Timothy Lewis (pictured), a former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, called on members of Congress to refrain from barring death row inmates and other defendants from the full access to the federal courts in their appeals. Some legislators have proposed eliminating federal habeas corpus review in many cases, and barring access to the federal courts to many of those raising challenges to their death sentences. The authors of the op-ed wrote, in part:

We take a back seat to no one in our support for strong law enforcement, but we are equally committed to our country's long-standing commitment to fair trials and constitutional safeguards. These safeguards are essential to making as sure as possible that when we charge someone with a crime, we have the right person and that that person, if convicted, receives the sentence he or she deserves. All Americans should be alarmed at the many recent exonerations of innocent people who have served years in prison or on death row. Not only have we locked up the wrong people, but the true perpetrators remain free to inflict more harm. As a result, we are profoundly disturbed about reports of a new and misguided assault on the writ of habeas corpus. In a back-door action, the provision in question would be attached to entirely unrelated legislation in the few remaining days before Congress adjourns. It has never been examined by any congressional committee, so no senator or representative has heard what no doubt would be an outcry of public opposition against it.

The provision would cover much of the same ground as the Streamlined Procedures Act, an ill-conceived bill that generated enormous opposition last year. For the first time, both the Judicial Conference, representing the country's federal judges, and the Conference of Chief Justices, representing the chief justices of all states, forcefully opposed the act because it would have stripped the federal courts of much of their jurisdiction to hear habeas petitions.

Numerous other reasonable voices across the political spectrum also opposed this legislation. They did so because, as the chief justices stated, "The wrongful conviction of an innocent person leaves the actual perpetrator free and undermines public trust and confidence in our criminal justice system."

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 26, 2006; Photo (C) 2009 Avonlee photography, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License).

Former Warden and Supreme Court Justice Seek Clemency for California Man

Former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin (pictured) and former San Quentin warden Daniel Vasquez are urging California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency to Clarence Ray Allen. Allen, who will turn 76 just a day before his scheduled execution on January 17, is blind and disabled, conditions that his attorneys have argued would make his execution cruel and unusual punishment.

In a letter to Schwarzenegger, Grodin, who authored the court's 1986 opinion upholding Allen's conviction and death sentence, stated, "[T]he issue now - for you as governor and for me as private citizen - is whether the execution of Mr. Allen would serve any legitimate societal interest in either retribution or deterrence. My own judgment, considering the time that has elapsed, the physical suffering that Mr. Allen has endured and the state's likely involvement in that suffering, is that it would not. On the contrary, to execute Mr. Allen now, under these conditions, for a crime which he committed more than a quarter century ago, would itself violate societal standards of decency."

Vasquez, who was San Quentin's warden from 1983 to 1993, wrote in his letter to the governor that Allen's case is "an extraordinary one for which commutation of his death sentence is warranted." Stating that Allen "presents absolutely no risk to institutional safety or to public safety," Vasquez added, "[H]e is physically declined so dramatically since his reception on Death Row that he is physically incapacitated from promoting any violence. According to CDC [California Dept. of Corrections] records and my own observations, he is verifiably blind and disabled. . . . He is an old man who has fallen apart in almost every respect."

(Inside Bay Area, December 29, 2005).

Former FBI Chief and Texas Judge Call for Halt to Texas Executions

William S. Sessions, who served as director of the FBI from 1987 to 1993, and Charles F. Baird, a former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge from 1990 to 1998, have called for a halt to executions in Texas because of the risk of executing an innocent person. Sessions and Baird, both of whom are native Texans, cited the problems at the Houston Crime Lab as a principal reason for their doubts about the reliability of the death penalty system:

Since November 2002, when its police department's crime lab problems first surfaced, Houston citizens have reacted with dismay to each new revelation.

The problems initially seemed limited to fairly minor physical breakdowns at the lab building. At every turn, however, these problems have multiplied. Most recently, authorities discovered about 280 boxes filled with crime evidence involving as many as 8,000 cases. What is most worrisome is that these cases were considered closed, many with a perpetrator behind bars and the victims seemingly assured that justice had been done. But because these boxes remain uninventoried, we cannot be sure that the right person is in prison, or if the true perpetrator is still on the streets, endangering us all.

We are Texans and members of a bipartisan committee sponsored by the Constitution Project's Death Penalty Initiative. We joined the committee in 1999 because we believe the risk of convicting and executing the wrong people is unacceptably high. Since the initiative's creation, the number of individuals who have been exonerated and released from death row has reached 117 nationwide, including eight from Texas. The discovery of the boxes from the Houston crime lab raises the potential that many more wrongfully convicted people are being housed in our Texas prisons.

While our committee includes members who support the death penalty, and others who oppose it, we all agree that the risk of wrongful convictions is too high and that systemic reforms are urgently needed to try to make the system fairer and more accurate.

One of our recommendations is that states allow DNA and other biological evidence to be properly tested in any case and any time if the evidence might shed light on the guilt or innocence of the inmate, so that we can be as sure as possible that we are prosecuting the right person.

Our committee has not taken a position on a moratorium, but the Houston travesty requires us to join with the many prominent Texans who are now calling for a moratorium until the evidence in the Houston crime lab boxes is inventoried and, if appropriate, tested.

We are in good company. Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt has noted,'I think it would be very prudent for us as a criminal justice system to delay further executions until we have had time to review the evidence.' The dean of the Texas Senate, John Whitmire, who represents part of Houston and also chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, joined in the chief's call for a moratorium. In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry, Whitmire stated, 'It's just nuts, to sum it up, that we would not hold off on executions until we go through each and every piece of evidence.'

Former Gov. Mark White and Charles Terrell, a former chairman of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, have also called on the governor to act, as have major Texas newspapers. Judge Tom Price of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has also recently joined the call for a moratorium.

Yet, within the last few weeks, five executions have gone forward involving death row inmates from Houston, with another scheduled for early December. District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has resisted an independent review of the crime lab and has joined the trial judges in opposing a postponement of the executions, even just until a proper inventory and any appropriate testing of the evidence is done.

We cannot understand this position. If the evidence confirms the guilt of the person scheduled to be executed, the execution should go forward. But if the evidence exonerates the inmate, no Texan would want to see an execution.

Texans know that the crime lab problems are not just theoretical and are not limited to death row inmates. In 2003, Josiah Sutton was exonerated of a crime he did not commit after spending four years in prison. Earlier this month, George Rodriguez was released after spending more than 17 years in prison. He was convicted on the basis of faulty DNA analysis.

Since reintroduction of the death penalty, Texas has executed 336 men and women. Our state has been responsible for more than 35 percent of all the executions in America. Too many of these executions occurred despite of profound questions about the facts of these cases, including in some instances questions about whether the defendant was actually innocent.

The two safety valves that supposedly prevent our state from executing an innocent person have not worked as they should, and in some cases have failed entirely. The Court of Criminal Appeals, an elected and partisan body, has been criticized by the U.S. Supreme Court for not properly reviewing cases. A just released Texas Monthly article about the court is called 'And Justice for Some.' And -- borrowing a phrase from the Texas oil fields -- clemency in Texas is simply a dry hole, with critical facts either not presented to the governor or not meaningfully considered.

Many experts believe that the death penalty does not deter crime. Some of us are not sure one way or the other. But, we should not be deterred from exercising common sense. We have a runaway train with no one at the controls, and that is no way to run a railroad. We support a moratorium.

(Op-ed, Austin American-Statesman, November 25, 2004).

Texas Police Chief Calls for Halt to Executions in Wake of Scandal

In the wake of a scandal that has called into question the reliability of the police crime lab's testing and handling of evidence in Harris County, Texas, Police Chief Harold Hurtt has said that executions of inmates from the county should not be scheduled until all relevant evidence has been reexamined to assure accuracy. He went on to note that the executions of nine individuals convicted in Harris County that are scheduled to take place before March 2005 should not be allowed to go forward. "I think it would be very prudent for us as a criminal justice system to delay further executions until we have had time to review the evidence," Hurtt said. Harris County investigators are about a quarter of the way through their review of hundreds of boxes of evidence that had been forgotten in a storage room and may impact thousands of crimnal cases.

(Houston Chronicle, September 30, 2004).

Law Enforcement Officials Support Bill to End Juvenile Death Penalty

A bipartisan measure to eliminate the juvenile death penalty in Florida has passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and is now on its way to the full Senate for consideration. The measure was introduced by Republican Senator Victor Crist (pictured), a death penalty supporter who notes that young people are different because they don't have the same understanding of consequences as an adult. The bill also has support from the state’s top law enforcement officers, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Guy Tunnel. "You need to show some compassion, but you can’t forget the needs of victims. I’m a proponent of capital punishment but I think, generally speaking, this is a good thing," said Tunnel of the bill. Earlier this year, Wyoming and South Dakota eliminated the juvenile death penalty, and the U.S. Supreme Court will decide this fall whether the practice is unconstitutional. The federal government and 19 states prohibit the death penalty for offenders who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime, and 12 additional states do not have capital punishment.

(South Florida Sun-Sentinel, April 14, 2004) See Juveniles: Roper v. Simmons.

Police Chief Says Death Penalty Is Unwise Use of Limited Resources

West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, has told state lawmakers that resources devoted to the death penalty would be better spent elsewhere. He noted, "It is a practical issue. We have a death penalty law on the books, but we haven't executed anyone since 1960, and it doesn't look like anyone will be executed. The process is long, labor intensive and expensive. Now, any money we've put into death penalty cases has really been wasted." Strillacci said death penalty funds would be more wisely spent on other aspects of the criminal justice system, such as forensics, DNA evidence collection and cataloguing, and other aspects of the criminal investigation process. He said that this reallocation of funds would result in the conviction of more criminals and the exoneration of more innocent people.

(New Haven Register, February 29, 2004).

Houston Police Chief Voices Concern About Prosecutors

Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford said that criminal defendants in Texas are at the mercy of prosecutors in an unfair system that emphasizes winning rather than justice. Bradford said that he believes there is sufficient probable cause to convene a court of inquiry to investigate the entire Police Department crime lab, not just the DNA portion. Bradford also voiced support for changes that would help to balance the Texas justice system, which he believes currently works in favor of prosecutors. He described the attitude in the district attorney's office as, "What can I do to win? Win, win, win." Bradford supports measures such as an open discovery process in criminal trails and standardizing the appointment of forensics experts to assist court-appointed attorneys in cases with DNA evidence."

(Houston Chronicle, June 24, 2003).

Former FBI Chief Sessions Calls for Innocence Commission in Texas

In a recent op-ed, William Sessions called on state legislators in Texas to pass a measure to create an Innocence Commission. The Commission would examine the Texas criminal justice system in an effort to protect against wrongful convictions. Sessions, a former director of the FBI and federal judge, noted that numerous exonerations , recent crime lab scandals in the state, and other troubling events should prompt state leaders to take immediate action:

"When we study our criminal justice system in Texas and make it better, we not only reduce the chances of convicting the innocent, we increase the chances of convicting the guilty. We also show that our system is strong enough to recognize and repair its own mistakes."

A bill to create such a commission was introduce by Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston.

(Houston Chronicle, May 13, 2003)

Houston Police Chief Urges Freeze on Harris County Executions

Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford told the Texas House Committee on General Investigations that execution dates should not be set for seven Harris County men on the state's death row until DNA evidence in these cases can be reviewed a second time. The comments stem from a December audit of the Houston Police Department's crime lab in which auditors found instances of improper lab practices and shoddy record keeping. The problems were so egregious that the department shut the lab down in January. Kevin Bailey, Chairman of the House Committee, stated, "Until we resolve this and can be sure that people were rightly convicted, if DNA was used in any conviction of a death penalty, there ought to be a hold on those people sentenced to death." Bradford told the committee that the Police Department's internal investigation of the crime lab, labeled by Department of Public Safety DNA expert Irma Rios as among the worst labs she has ever seen, should be completed by the end of March.

(Houston Chronicle, March 7, 2003)

Support for Moratorium in Maryland

As a corrections officer for 27 years, Willie "Sonny" Leggett says he supports a moratorium on executions in Maryland because he has seen prisoners change their lives for the better. "I really don't believe that the death penalty serves a purpose. Why take a life? I just don't think it's right. Plus, you might get innocent people killed," he said. The fear of wrongful executions is not the only reasons Marylanders are deadlocked on whether the state should have a moratorium. Del. Salima S. Mariott, (D-Baltimore), who sponsored last year's moratorium bill, believes, "This is an issue of racial disparity." While Marylanders are split on the moratorium, the support for a halt on executions is 65% among African Americans.

(Baltimore Sun, 1/9/02)

Former CIA agent believes Death Penalty Hurts Anti-Terrorism Efforts

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Milt Bearden, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan and Sudan, expressed his concern about the impact the death penalty could have on future extraditions:

The administration seems to understand that, almost to a man, the convicted terrorists serving sentences in federal prisons were brought to American justice with the assistance of friendly nations, sometimes acting boldly and just barely within the limits of their own laws.
That reality, inevitably, brings into question the sentencing hearings currently underway in New York. Put bluntly, the death penalty for these murderers might not be such a good idea. . . . It might not be a good idea because it will ultimately work against a process of international teamwork that has been so successful thus far.
...[T]hree of those convicted in New York last week were delivered to our courts by Kenya and South Africa, also without formal extradition. Several more terrorists linked to these same crimes are now sitting in European jails awaiting extradition. Bringing the death penalty into play could complicate, or limit, this vital cooperation in the future.

(Wall Street Journal op-ed, 6/4/01)

DNA Exoneration Changes Former Detective's Mind About Capital Punishment

Mark Schlein, a former detective who helped secure four murder convictions against Jerry Frank Townsend in the 1970s, recently spoke out against the death penalty. Although Schlein was a death penalty supporter when he worked on the Townsend case, he changed his mind after recent DNA tests pointed to another suspect and Broward County, Florida, prosecutors decided to drop the murder charges against Townsend. "This is a case that shows the criminal justice system in America is not perfect. We've all seen heinous crimes. But in a perfect world -- and it's not a perfect world -- a big part of me says the state of Florida ought not be in the business of killing people," said Schlein, who is now an assistant attorney general. "I'm deeply grateful he's alive today so he can walk free from jail." Townsend was convicted in the 1980s based almost entirely on his confession, but his lawyers note that Townsend has an IQ of 51 and could have been coached by police.

(Sun-Sentinel, 6/2/01)

Texas Warden Questions Capital Punishment

In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, Jim Willett, who presided over 89 executions as the warden on Texas' death row, stated:

Has an innocent man ever been executed? Probably. The judicial system is designed to promote fairness, but anyone who expects perfection is asking for an impossibility. Any revamping might make the system better, but because human nature is involved, it won't make it perfect.
. . .
By far the question people ask me most is how I feel about the death penalty. I can only tell you this: Apparently, our society believes that some people need to be removed permanently and completely. As the warden, and a servant of the taxpayer, I tried to do the best job that I could. As a human being, I see it as a sad affair. But it is as a Christian that I struggle most. . . . I have watched men being put to death for hideous crimes and wondered at that moment if we were doing the right thing.

(Washington Post, 5/13/01)

Death Penalty for Terrorists?

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Jessica Stern, who served on the National Security Council from 1994 to 1995, warned of the danger in executing terrorists:

As a nation, we have decided that terrorism that results in loss of life should face the possibility of the death penalty. But is this wise?
. . .
[E]xecutions play right into the hands of our adversaries. We turn criminals into martyrs, invite retaliatory strikes and enhance the public relations and fund-raising strategies of our enemies.
. . .
[O]ther countries with far more experience in counterterrorism have concluded that imprisoning terrorists is the better option in the long run.
. . .
Our most powerful weapon against terrorists is our commitment to the rule of law. We must use the courts to make clear that terrorism is a criminal act, not jihad, not heroism, not holy war. And then, we must not make martyrs out of murderers.

(New York Times, 2/28/01) Read the complete op-ed.

Texas Warden Questions Executions

In an extensive article in the New York Times exploring the views of those who participate in executions in Texas, Warden Jim Willett, who has presided over 84 executions at Huntsville Prison, stated:

"Just from a Christian standpoint, you can't see one of these [executions] and not consider that maybe it's not right."

(New York Times, 12/17/00) Read the article

North Carolina's Leading Jurists and Law Enforcement Officials Voice Concerns About Capital Punishment

  • "The state should not execute another person without testing for DNA, if DNA testing is possible," said Tom Ross, Director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts and former state Superior Court judge. (Ross emphasized that he was speaking personally and not as a AOC director.)
  • Former N.C. Chief Justice, James Exum, said any death penalty law written by humankind "forever and always will be insufficient to decide who should live or who should die.... No matter how we try to dress it up -- doing it by lethal injection and very early in the morning -- it's still the ultimate, brutal act."
  • Guilford County District Attorney Jim Kimel stated that death penalty cases strain the justice system. They make up less than 1% of his caseload, but devour 1/3 of its resources. "They are all consuming," he said. "They demand not just due process, but super due process."
  • "I really question whether the death penalty is worth having in terms of time and money," said former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, a long time death penalty supporter. "It has warped our court system. I think the time has come to decide whether it's worth the cost."
  • (The News & Record, North Carolina, 8/8/00)

Texas Corrections Official Expresses Concerns About Representation

Charles T. Terrell, Sr., past chairman of the board, Texas Criminal Justice Department, for whom the "Terrell Unit" that houses Texas' death row inmates is named, expressed his concern about representation in capital cases. "We need a centralized system of public defenders," said Terrell. "A person can be a competent attorney, but unqualified for capital murder cases or appeals."

(New York Daily News, 6/21/00)

Members of Pardons Board Raise Questions About Innocence

Some members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles have expressed doubts about Gov. George W. Bush's assertion that, "every person that has been put to death in Texas, under [his] watch, has been guilty of the crime charged." Recently, Board member and death penalty supporter, Paddy Lann Burwell, stated: "I worry that we may execute an innocent person. Any person would know that is a possibility, I think our system needs to be improved." Board Members Tom Moss and Cynthia Tauss, who both voted for clemency in the case of Troy Farris, also expressed doubts. The Farris case, according to Moss, was one of two cases in which he "saw something that may have indicated that [the inmate was] innocent." Tauss stated that she "cried all day" when Farris was executed for killing a police officer. "I wasn't sure he should have been given the death penalty," said Tauss. "That is why I voted to commute."

(New York Times, 5/14/00)

Texas Death Row's Namesake Rethinks the Death Penalty

Charles T. Terrell, Sr., past chairman of the board, Texas Criminal Justice Department, recently expressed his second thoughts about the death penalty in a letter to the Dallas Morning News. Terrell, for whom the "Terrell Unit" that houses Texas' death row inmates was named, wrote the following:

"For most of my life, I have believed the death penalty to be a deterrent to the brutal crimes that result in such a sentence. However, today I'm not as sure....
[W]e now have an option of life without the possibility of parole.... I think the specter of life without parole in [prison] is much more frightening than death by injection....
[R]acial disparity is a legitimate issue to investigate. And I believe that anyone facing the death penalty should have the right to a complete investigation as to whether DNA evidence can double check our legal system for error. Not doing so is a criminal act by society."

(Dallas Letter, Dallas Morning News, 3/2/00)

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