New Voices - Press and Media

Death Penalty Moratorium Needed in Texas

  • The Dallas Morning News renewed its call for a moratorium on executions in Texas because of the numerous errors in the state's death penalty system.  The paper highlighted the cases of Michael Blair and Charles Hood as examples of how the system has broken down.  Blair was exonerated in 2008 after 14 years on death row.  DNA evidence revealed that he had not been the murderer of 7-year-old Ashley Estel in 1993, despite the fact that the jury had taken only 27 minutes to convict him, and that he may have been guilty of other crimes.  Charles Hood remains on Texas' death row, even though the fairness of his trial was completely compromised by the fact that the judge and the prosecutor admitted to having an illicit sexual affair.

    These and other problems have led the Dallas Morning News to change its 100-year position and oppose the death penalty completely.  " It's the view of this newspaper that the justice system will never be foolproof and, therefore, use of the death penalty is never justified."  Nevertheless, the paper supports the call of conservative Republican Brian McCall for a two-year moratorium on executions.

    ("Editorial: Death penalty moratorium needed," Dallas Morning News, Dec. 29, 2008). See Editorials and New Voices.

A Call for Examination of Death Penalty in Tennessee

  • The Tennessean called for a more just legal system as a state legislative study committee on the death penalty continues to meet. The committee began its work this year after a series of embarrassing mistakes in applying the death penalty in Tennessee. Executions currently are on hold due to a lethal injection challenge brought last year by a death row inmate. The editorial called the committee's work a “sliver of hope for improvement” after “costly confusion and probable miscarriages of justice in capital murder cases.”

    The editorial notes, “This is clearly an area where Tennessee must seek effective reform of its system. Not only are there cases of innocent people being sentenced to death because of faulty representation, a lack of legal understanding of the capital system leads to further delays in disposition of cases, keeping inmates in limbo on death row for decades and prolonging the pain for the families of murder victims.” They added, “The finality of execution demands that we put an end to mistakes in the system.”

    The full editorial may be found below:

    Tentative steps being taken toward fairness in the system
    Today's Tennessean Topic: State examines the death penalty

    After a number of years in which Tennessee has seen legal twists and turns, costly confusion and probable miscarriages of justice in capital murder cases, there is a sliver of hope for improvement.

    It is tragic that it took lives being lost in the process, but for the sake of people on Tennessee's death row; members of the legal system; elected officials; and the public at large, we look to the legislative study committee on the death penalty for a more just system in the future.

    The committee began its work this year, after the 2006 execution of Sedley Alley was questioned because of DNA evidence that could have implicated a different person in the slaying of a 19-year-old woman; after lethal injection, one of two execution methods used by the state of Tennessee, was suspended by the governor over questions about its effectiveness, then reinstated, then suspended again pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision about similar concerns in Kentucky.

    While other states resumed use of lethal injection after the court decision, Tennessee cases remain on hold because of an additional legal challenge brought last year by a death-row inmate.

    Also, the state reluctantly had to release another inmate, Paul House, earlier this year after 22 years on death row for a crime experts say he did not commit. While the state has dropped attempts to have the ailing House executed, they plan to retry him in March.

    Since the state insists on applying the death penalty, it at least needs to do a far better job of ensuring the right people are brought to justice. The Associated Press reported that the legislative committee heard last month from Barry Scheck, a prominent defense attorney and co-founder of The Innocence Project, a legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions. Scheck represented Alley but was unable to persuade state courts to release DNA evidence for testing. Alley's previous lawyers focused on a mental-illness defense and never tried to use the DNA evidence that would have proved his innocence.

    Scheck told the committee that it could institute reforms, such as educating Tennessee courts on ordering DNA testing, and standardizing police procedures, such as preserving crime-scene evidence and taping confessions and eyewitness statements.

    Forensics and police procedures are two pieces of the puzzle; another is ensuring that murder suspects get adequate representation. The legislative committee also met last month with Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Janice Holder and Justice Gary Wade to discuss forming a commission to train attorneys in capital cases and provide funds for defense attorneys who represent indigent clients.

    The Tennessee Justice Project, along with a number of studies by groups nationwide, has found many death-row inmates receive inadequate counsel because they are indigent or members of racial and ethnic minorities. Prosecutors typically have nearly three times the resources of public defenders and indigent-defense attorneys.

    According to the AP, Justice Holder said the Tennessee Supreme Court doesn't have an opinion on creating a commission, but is reluctant to approve the idea without additional funding and without more information on whether such commissions have worked elsewhere.

    But this is clearly an area where Tennessee must seek effective reform of its system. Not only are there cases of innocent people being sentenced to death because of faulty representation, a lack of legal understanding of the capital system leads to further delays in disposition of cases, keeping inmates in limbo on death row for decades and prolonging the pain for the families of murder victims.

    Whether in support of or in opposition to a death penalty, the residents of Tennessee should have clarity, compassion and, especially, justice for everyone. The finality of execution demands that we put an end to mistakes in the system.

    (Editorial Board, "Tentative steps being taken towards fairness in the system," The Tennessean, October 16, 2008). See also Innocence and New Voices.

Proposed Law Would Harm Younger Victims

  • The governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, has proposed that his state expand the death penalty to include cases of sexual assault against children where the victim is not killed.  However, according to an editorial in the Springfield News-Leader, such a law would not protect children.  Instead, it could make it less likely that these offenses would be reported, would put the child in danger of even worse crimes, and would involve the child and the family in years of death penalty litigation.  The editorial cites the opinions of a leading child advocate and a prosecutor in urging caution about such a law.  In addition to the significant policy considerations, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether such a law would be constitutional.

To better protect children, Gov. Matt Blunt says we need a new law allowing child rapists to be executed.

In making his pitch, Blunt continually uses the words "protecting our children."

Unfortunately, no matter how well meaning he might be, the governor's proposed broadening of the application of the death penalty may make it more difficult to protect children.

Legislators have been jumping on the bandwagon, saying they will support a Senate bill sponsored by Jack Goodman, R- Mount Vernon, that calls for anyone convicted of forcible rape or forcible sodomy of a child under 12 to be put to death.

That's somewhat predictable. What sane politician in this state wants to be seen as pro-deviant?

Still, if you listen to those who work most closely on child rape cases, you will learn they have concerns about the proposed law.

Creating a death penalty for child sexual offenders, could, in their view:

- Cause a decrease in calls reporting attacks on children, because those making the reports will fear it could lead to death for the suspect;

- Frighten child victims out of coming forward knowing their accounts could lead to an execution, especially when a case involves a family member;

- Tighten rules of evidence in child rape cases, because flexibility and forgiveness have been built into laws regarding testimony from children;

- Create more scrutiny of convictions, with minor errors taking on more gravity and perhaps triggering new trials and appeals;

- Cause much more time to be expended by prosecutors and, often, publicly funded defense attorneys;

- Force children to spend many more years dealing with a case, because capital cases produce many more appeals;

- Heighten the chance that an offender will kill a victim to avoid being identified.

That latter concern came to mind for Barbara Brown, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center, as she dealt with the case involving the 7-year-old allegedly attacked by Jeffrey Dickson.

He's a 36-year-old Springfield man charged with child kidnapping, forcible rape and two counts of forcible sodomy. Prosecutors say he took the 7-year-old from a Springfield home earlier this month to another home in the city where he drugged her, choked and sexually attacked her, leaving her for dead in a house he set ablaze.

Brown, who has worked with child victims for almost a decade, worries a person who is capable of that kind of vicious attack might not hesitate to inflict fatal injuries if the possible penalty is death anyway.

"It takes away the incentive to leave a child alive," she said.

Greene County Prosecutor Darrell Moore cited some of the concerns listed above as he offered his opinions on the proposed law. He added he cannot understand why the move has been made to try to broaden Missouri's use of capital punishment at a time when questions of the constitutionality of a similar law are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in a Louisiana case.

Should the court rule unfavorably toward expansion of the penalty in that case, work by Missouri's lawmakers will be moot.

If the legislature is doing more than just posturing with its talk of a death penalty for child rapists, lawmakers must first engage in serious, analytical discussion with those most directly affected: child advocates, prosecutors and police.

Viewed in simple terms, the question of being for or against punishment for those who would terrorize, hurt and seek callous pleasure from children is easy.

But this is far from a simple issue.

Those who deal with it judicially know that. Those who deal with it legislatively ought to know it, too.

(Editorial, "Execution of child rapists will not protect our children," Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader, April 28, 2008).  See

Kennedy v. Louisiana

and

Recent Legislation

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NE: Instead of a new means of capital punishment, the Legislature should get rid of it

  • Days after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair was unconstitutional, a Lincoln Journal Star editorial urged the state to reconsider the death penalty:  "Instead of rushing to pass a new means of capital punishment, the Legislature should take this opportunity to finally get rid of the death penalty."   Nebraska was the only state to retain the electric chair as its sole means of execution. The paper noted that it was the right time to take a broader look at the death penalty.  "With the advent of more DNA testing, errors in sending people to death row were shown to be far more frequent than most people believed."  Hence, the paper concluded, "the time is ripe to abolish capital punishment in the state.”

    The editorial noted that according to a poll by Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty, 51% of Nebraskans favor a repeal of the death penalty if it is replaced with a sentence of life without parole and restitution to the victim’s estate. Last year, a bill that would allow for life in prison or life in prison without the possibility of parole as a sentence for first-degree murder, introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers, failed by only one vote.

    The last execution to take place in Nebraska occurred in 1997.
    (“Abolish the death penalty in Nebraska,” Lincoln Journal Star, February 10, 2008). See Editorials.

 

  • "Don't Expand Capital Punishment, Abolish It"

In a recent editorial, the Concord Monitor advocated against expanding New Hampshire’s death penalty law to include multiple-murder offenses, as some lawmakers have proposed. Instead, they say, “the death penalty should be eliminated, not expanded.” The editorial cites problems in the death penalty process, such as wrongful convictions, high costs, and its arbitrariness, as reasons for abolition.

 

The Monitor also writes that the death penalty is counterproductive, noting, “It does nothing to deter people from committing murder, but it simultaneously sends the message that, under circumstances other than war or defense of oneself or another, it is permissible to kill another human being.” The paper continues, “Expanding the death penalty to apply to more offenses will not reduce the murder rate. Making killing a cultural taboo so heinous that society doesn't impose it on the worst of criminals, might.”

 

New Hampshire has not had an execution in almost 70 years.

(“Don't expand capital punishment, abolish it,” Concord Monitor, February 6, 2008). See Editorials.

Key Virgina Paper Shifts Position on Death Penalty

  • The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a key paper in the Virginia state capital, has long supported the death penalty.  But their recent editorial takes the position that capital punishment "achieves no legitimate goals that cannot be achieved by a life sentence with no possibility of parole."  The paper equates the death penalty with the state "playing God.” The full text of the editorial follows:

    Del. Frank Hargrove, one of the General Assembly's Don Quixotes, hopes the umpteenth time will be the charm. He wants to end executions in Virginia, which stands second only to Texas in its zest for capital punishment.

    Although there is some slight evidence that capital punishment might deter crime, its overall effect on crime trends is vanishingly small -- and it achieves no legitimate goals that cannot be achieved by a life sentence with no possibility of parole. (Spare us the nonsense about how execution protects fellow inmates and guards from psychopaths. A place like the supermax Pelican Bay prison is the place for them.)

    Many arguments against capital punishment are flawed, but that does not make a case for execution. The only affirmative case that can be made on behalf of killing someone instead of locking him away forever is the sentiment that certain heinous fiends deserve to die. Indeed they do; indeed, they deserve much worse than that, and their death is certainly no great loss to the world. But the judicial system does not exist to mete out divine retribution.

    Those who believe in limited government also should believe government ought to limit itself to protecting the public -- and ought to refrain from playing God. We long have supported capital punishment. Yet Hargrove sets a challenging example. To put a new spin on an old conservative trope: If it is not necessary to execute, then is it necessary not to execute? The question is growing tougher.
    (Editorial, “Death Be Not?,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 22, 2008). See Editorials and New Voices.
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  • Dallas Morning News Issues Historic Call to End Death Penalty

Noting that they "cannot reconcile the fact that [the death penalty] is both imperfect and irreversible," the Dallas Morning News has called on Texas to abandon capital punishment. The paper, which has long supported the death penalty, changed its position after careful consideration of mounting evidence that the state has wrongly convicted a number of defendants in capital trials and has likely executed at least one man who was innocent. The editorial announcing the paper's policy shift stated, "This board has lost confidence that the state of Texas can guarantee that every inmate it executes is truly guilty of murder. We do not believe that any legal system devised by inherently flawed human beings can determine with moral certainty the guilt of every defendant convicted of murder." The complete editorial follows:

Ernest Ray Willis set a fire that killed two women in Pecos County. So said Texas prosecutors who obtained a conviction in 1987 and sent Mr. Willis to death row. But it wasn't true. Seventeen years later, a federal judge overturned the conviction, finding that prosecutors had drugged Mr. Willis with powerful anti-psychotic medication during his trial and then used his glazed appearance to characterize him as "cold-hearted." They also suppressed evidence and introduced neither physical proof nor eyewitnesses in the trial – and his court-appointed lawyers mounted a lousy defense. Besides, another death-row inmate confessed to the killings.

The state dropped all charges. Ernest Ray Willis emerged from prison a pauper. But he was lucky: He had his life. Not so Carlos De Luna, who was executed in 1989 for the stabbing death of a single mother who worked at a gas station. For years, another man with a history of violent crimes bragged that he had committed the crime. The case against Mr. De Luna, in many eyes, does not stand up to closer examination.

There are signs he was innocent. We don't know for sure, but we do know that if the state made a mistake, nothing can rectify it.

And that uncomfortable truth has led this editorial board to re-examine its century-old stance on the death penalty. This board has lost confidence that the state of Texas can guarantee that every inmate it executes is truly guilty of murder. We do not believe that any legal system devised by inherently flawed human beings can determine with moral certainty the guilt of every defendant convicted of murder.

That is why we believe the state of Texas should abandon the death penalty – because we cannot reconcile the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible.

Flaws in the capital criminal justice system have bothered troubled us for some timeyears. We have editorialized in favor of clearer instructions to juries, better counsel for defendants, the overhaul of forensic labs and restrictions on the execution of certain classes of defendant. We have urged lawmakers to at least put in place a moratorium, as other states have, to closely examine the system.

And yet, despite tightening judicial restrictions and growing concern, the exonerations keep coming, and the doubts keep piling up without any reaction from Austin.

From our vantage point in Dallas County, the possibility of tragic, fatal error in the death chamber appears undeniable. We have seen a parade of 13 men walk out of the prison system after years – even decades – of imprisonment for crimes they didn't commit. Though not death penalty cases, these examples – including an exoneration just last week – reveal how shaky investigative techniques and reliance on eyewitnesses can derail the lives of the innocent.

The Tulia and the fake-drug scandals have also eroded public confidence in the justice system. These travesties illustrate how greed and bigotry can poison the process.

It's hard to believe that such pervasive human failings have never resulted in the death of an innocent man.

In 2001, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed."

Some death penalty supporters acknowledge that innocents may have been and may yet be executed, but they argue that serving the greater good is worth risking that unfortunate outcome. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argues that the Byzantine appeals process effectively sifts innocent convicts from the great mass of guilty, and killing the small number who fall through is a risk he's willing to live with. According to polls, most Texans are, too. But this editorial board is not.

Justice Scalia calls these innocents "an insignificant minimum." But that minimum is not insignificant to the unjustly convicted death-row inmate. It is not insignificant to his or her family. The jurist's verbiage conceals [] a transgression against the Western moral tradition, which establishes both the value of the individual and the wrongness of making an innocent suffer for the supposed good of the whole. Shedding innocent blood has been a scandal since Cain slew Abel – a crime for which, the Bible says, God spared the murderer, who remained under harsh judgment.

This newspaper's death penalty position is based not on sympathy for vile murderers – who, many [] agree, deserve to die for their crimes – but rather in the conviction that not even the just dispatch of 10, 100, or 1,000 of these wretches can remove the stain of innocent blood from our common moral fabric.

This is especially true given that our society can be adequately guarded from killers using bloodless means. In 2005, the Legislature gave juries the option of sentencing killers to life without parole.

The state holds in its hands the power of life and death. It is an awesome power, one that citizens of a democracy must approach in fear and trembling, and in full knowledge that the state's justice system, like everything humanity touches, is fated to fall short of perfection. If we are doomed to err in matters of life and death, it is far better to err on the side of [] caution. It is far better to err on the side of life. The state cannot impose death – an irrevocable sentence – with absolute certainty in all cases. Therefore the state should not impose it at all. (Dallas Morning News, April 15, 2007; [] indicates slight change from on-line version due to assumed typographical error).

  • Chicago Tribune Changes Position and Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty
    After decades of maintaining a position that the government should have the legal right to impose capital punishment, the Chicago Tribune is now calling for abolition of the death penalty. Noting concerns about innocence, the arbitrary nature of the punishment, and the public's shift away from the death penalty, the Tribune announced on March 25 that, "The evidence of mistakes, the evidence of arbitrary decisions, the sobering knowledge that government can't provide certainty that the innocent will not be put to death--all that prompts this call for an end to capital punishment. It is time to stop killing in the people's name."

    The entire editorial follows:

    One of the core tenets of this newspaper since its founding has been that the extraordinary power of government must be wielded carefully and sparingly--particularly when that power weighs on the life and liberty of citizens.

    It has, as well, long been the position of this editorial page that the government should have the legal right to impose capital punishment--the death penalty.

    An editorial in 1869 stated: "Imprisonment as a penalty for capital crime has lost all its preventative value." A Tribune editorial in 1952 called the death penalty "the most powerful deterrent to other criminals." In 1976 this page said, "The danger of executing an innocent person is often cited, but we think unjustifiably."

    That last sentence sounds chilling today, in light of evidence in recent years of scores of cases in which government has wrongfully convicted defendants and sentenced them to death. The evidence of recent years argues that it is necessary to curb the government's power. It is time to abolish the death penalty.

    - - -

    We have learned much, particularly with advances in DNA technology, about the criminal justice system's capacity to make terrible mistakes. These revelations--many stemming from investigations by this newspaper--shake the foundation of support for capital punishment.

    Who gets a sentence of life and who gets death is often a matter of random luck, of politics, of geography, even a matter of racism. Mistakes can occur at every level of the process.

    Consider:

    - Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001 for the deaths of 168 people in the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City. Zacarias Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which took more than 3,000 lives.

    - The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, confessed to murdering at least 48 women--he may have been the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. But he made a plea agreement with prosecutors in Washington state that spared his life. Two years earlier, jurors in Washington sentenced a man to death for the murder of one woman during a robbery.

    - There is ample evidence that killers are far more likely to land on Death Row if their victims are white than if they are black or Hispanic.

    - You are 10 times more likely to get a death sentence in DuPage County than if you cross the border into Cook County.

    The system is arbitrary, and the system just plain gets it wrong. In the three decades since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., more than 120 people have been released from Death Row after evidence was presented that undermined the case against them. In that time Illinois has executed 12 people--and freed 18 from Death Row.

    This newspaper has done groundbreaking reporting on cases that suggest innocent people have been executed.

    Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death in Texas in 1994 for the arson murders of his three daughters. Willingham claimed he was innocent, and now several arson experts believe the case against him was built on scientifically invalid evidence. The fire that killed Willingham's children may have been an accident.

    Carlos De Luna was executed in Texas in 1989 for the murder of a gas station clerk, though no forensic evidence linked him to the crime. Now evidence points to another man, Carlos Hernandez, who bragged to relatives and friends that De Luna was convicted for a murder Hernandez committed.

    Even when the government convicts the right person, it can horribly botch the punishment. In December, it took Florida authorities 34 minutes to end the life of Angel Nieves Diaz because a poorly trained executioner incorrectly inserted a needle into his arm. The blunder prompted then-Gov. Jeb Bush to halt executions until the state improved its lethal injection procedures.

    - - -

    Public support for capital punishment has generally been strong over the years. Yet there's evidence that the thinking of many people is changing. In a May 2006 poll, two-thirds of Americans said they supported capital punishment. But there was a significant shift when they were asked what was the best penalty for murder. On that question, 47 percent chose the death penalty and 48 percent chose life in prison without possibility of parole.

    The most compelling evidence of a shift in public sentiment is that the number of death sentences handed out by judges and juries has plunged. There were 315 death sentences in 1995, but just 128 in 2005 and 102 in 2006. The number of executions has dropped nearly in half in the last eight years.

    Society's standards of justice and punishment continue to evolve. In the early 1900s, states began to substitute the electric chair as a more humane method of execution than the gallows. In the 1980s, lethal injection began to replace the electric chair and firing squads. Now lethal injection is coming under more scrutiny as evidence grows that it subjects the condemned to a great deal of pain. Eleven states have halted executions while they examine their lethal injection procedures.

    In the last five years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute juveniles and the mentally retarded.

    New Jersey placed a moratorium on executions in 2005, in part because of legislators' concerns about irreversible mistakes. A special commission in New Jersey has recommended abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The commission cited, among other reasons, the high cost of prosecuting and carrying out the sentence in a capital case. That far exceeds the cost of trying a defendant and keeping him locked up for life.

    - - -

    Illinois has been the focal point for the examination of the failings of the capital punishment system. Former Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2000, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich has sustained it. In the wake of revelations about how many people have been wrongfully convicted in Illinois, the state has made efforts to reform its criminal justice system.

    In 2001 the Illinois Supreme Court established a Capital Litigation Trial Bar, which set minimum standards for attorneys representing capital defendants and required judges to get more training. The legislature passed a package of capital punishment fixes, including an important measure to require that police interrogations of homicide suspects be recorded.

    This page pushed very hard for those reforms, and they have addressed some problems, but not all. Flaws remain.

    Little has been done to guard against situations in which witnesses to a murder mistakenly identify an innocent person as the suspect, the single greatest source of wrongful convictions. No mechanism exists in Illinois to review what went wrong in cases of wrongful convictions, or to ensure that the death penalty is evenly applied across geographic boundaries. Efforts to address mistakes or bad actors at forensic labs have gone nowhere. We don't see the prospect that there are better fixes for these gaps. Meanwhile, the list of crimes eligible for the death penalty has been expanded.

    When it acknowledged widespread problems in its system of capital punishment, Illinois prompted a nationwide soul-searching. Illinois can now lead the country by recognizing those errors will not be sufficiently addressed, that the state cannot have moral certainty that new injustices won't be heaped atop old ones.

    Research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment has produced conflicting results over the years. But with the small number of instances--less than one-half of one percent of all murderers are executed--it seems that if capital punishment ever did serve to stop violence, it does not do so now.

    Illinois already has the necessary alternative to death: life without possibility of parole. It is not a comfortable existence. It can mean life in a Supermax prison, where inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in 7-by-12-foot cells.

    The evidence of mistakes, the evidence of arbitrary decisions, the sobering knowledge that government can't provide certainty that the innocent will not be put to death--all that prompts this call for an end to capital punishment. It is time to stop killing in the people's name. (Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2007).
  • Dallas Morning News Calls for Halt to Executions

In a recent Dallas Morning News editorial, the paper noted the incongruity between the state apologizing to a prison inmate who was freed following DNA testing, and its aggressive pursuit of irrevocable executions. The paper stated that "human error is an inherent part" of the justice system and called on legislators to enact a moratorium on executions until the state can review the accuracy and fairness of its capital punishment process, because "For the condemned, evidence of an error could come too late. The paper wrote:

The prison door has swung open repeatedly in recent years to allow wrongfully convicted prisoners to walk free. In many cases, DNA evidence has offered them a second chance at life on the outside.

The headlines trumpeting their innocence provide us with bold-letter reminders that our justice system doesn't always get it right:

Last week, Andrew Gossett became the 11th Dallas County man granted his freedom after DNA confirmed what he had been saying for seven years: He didn't do it. Mr. Gossett had been sentenced to 50 years in prison for a sexual assault he did not commit.

That juries and judges are fallible is not a revelation. Human error is an inherent part of the system. Thank goodness that in the case of Mr. Gossett a terrible wrong has been corrected.

At the same time that this 46-year-old Garland man begins to rebuild his life, newspaper headlines note that January will be a particularly deadly month for Texas prisoners. The state is poised to execute five death row inmates during a 20-day stretch.

Against a backdrop of overturned convictions and DNA advances, these planned executions also should give us pause. For the condemned, evidence of an error could come too late. Lethal injections don't allow those second chances.

And while improved technology and new evidence have cleared only a tiny fraction of prisoners, those cases serve notice that even the remote possibility of a mistake is unacceptable in death penalty cases.

At least 10 other states are reviewing their capital punishment laws. Two have declared a moratorium.

But Texas has pressed on, accounting for nearly half of the executions in the country last year.

Lawmakers have dismissed our calls for a death penalty moratorium. But the frailties in the justice system that have been exposed suggest that it's time to revisit this issue.

When Mr. Gossett was set free last week, newly elected District Attorney Craig Watkins was in the courtroom. He thought it was important to tell Mr. Gossett, "We're sorry."

State officials won't have that opportunity if capital punishment is meted out incorrectly. (Dallas Morning News, January 10, 2007).

  • NEW VOICES: Oregon Paper Calls Death Penalty a "Pointless Law"

The Albany Democrat-Herald in Oregon recently editorialized that the "death penalty isn't working," and concluded "that the death penalty here is a pointless law. If we’re not going to apply this law, then getting rid of it would be the less expensive course." The editorial cited the possibility of error, the arbitrariness of applying the punishment to some dangerous offenders but not others, and the difficulty of ever getting to an execution as reasons for ending capital punishment. The editorial follows:

Death penalty isn’t working

A group based in Portland wants to abolish the death penalty in Oregon. Maybe they would get more public attention if we had the death penalty in fact as well as in law, and if there was an execution now and then.

Oregon voters reinstated the death penalty twice in the last generation. The 2nd time, in 1984, we did it right, and the courts did not strike down the law.

Instead, the courts did something else. They strung out the appeals so that in the 22 years since the voters acted, not a single person condemned to death has been executed if he didn't want to be.

The only 2 executions that did take place involved convicts who refused to appeal their sentences beyond the mandatory reviews by the state Supreme Court. They evidently realized they were better off dead than spending the rest of their lives in prison.

More than 30 men are on "death row" at the Oregon State Penitentiary. One of them has been there since 1991. No executions are foreseen in the next 5 years.

It's not as though we don't have worthy candidates for capital punishment. Most (though not all) of the condemned men have been convicted not just of aggravated murder but other crimes as well, ranging from assault and burglary to kidnapping and rape.

But while these men deserve to die before their time, there are uncounted others in the prison system who deserve the same fate but are not getting it. Ward Weaver is just one example. He killed 2 girls in Oregon City in 2002. But then he avoided any death sentence by pleading guilty to murder. Now we're taking care of him in prison, and will do so the rest of his natural life.

Besides the lack of even-handedness, one of the other arguments against the death penalty is that someone may be convicted unjustly, and an execution in that case would irreparably compound a miscarriage of justice. Judging by the Oregon cases on death row, it hasn't happened here, but the possibility exists.

The way Oregon has been dealing with this statute — by showing no urgency at all in at least trying to expedite decisions on appeals — it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the death penalty here is a pointless law. If we’re not going to apply this law, then getting rid of it would be the less expensive course. (Albany Democrat-Herald, Dec. 11, 2006).

  • NEW VOICES: Former Publisher of the Chicago Tribune Calls for End to Executions

In a recent op-ed, Jack Fuller, former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, called for an end to capital punishment. Citing a series of mistakes by eyewitnesses, police and forensic experts, he stated that the criminal justice system is too deeply flawed to entrust with carrying out executions. Pointing to the likely innocence of Carlos DeLuna, a Texas man who was executed in 1989, Fuller concluded that the death penalty should be abolished because "no goverment is good enough to entrust with the absolute power that capital punishment entails." His article was entitled NOT IN THE NAME OF JUSTICE:

Death-penalty opponents advance various arguments for abolition, but the most powerful of them all finds embodiment in the person of Carlos De Luna.

Texas executed De Luna in 1989 for the murder of Wanda Lopez in a gas station knife attack. Something went terribly wrong at the execution by lethal injection. De Luna did not slip quickly into unconsciousness as he was supposed to. Instead, he reared up on the gurney against the restraints and seemed to try to say something.

Perhaps it was to cry out in pain as the killing medications began to course into his veins before the anesthetic took hold. The possibility that lethal injection subjects its recipients to excruciating physical agony has become the focus of a great deal of attention lately among death-penalty opponents.

Or worse, De Luna may have been trying to protest his innocence on the very precipice of death. A Tribune investigation has exhumed compelling reasons to think this would have been the truth.

That is the reason we have to stop putting people to death. The criminal justice system is too deeply flawed to entrust with the decision to kill a particular person in order to make a point (for that is what deterrence and retribution come down to).

Odd then that people who believe in the free market because government cannot make the right decision about how to allocate resources don't all rally to the abolitionist cause.

Strange that opponents of socialized medicine can't see that the government they don't trust to save their lives oughtn't be trusted to take De Luna's.

Peculiar that the Republicans who wanted to privatize Social Security to save it from bureaucrats and politicians are eager to let government agents in the form of police, prosecutors, judges and juries decide in the face of profound factual and moral ambiguity that this one should die while that one should live.

It isn't that the people who work in the criminal justice system are bad folks. They are often the very best among us. Police officers willing to put their lives on the line to save ours. Prosecutors who face down some of the scariest individuals on the planet. Judges who do their jobs with almost supernatural self-discipline. Jurors who are called out of peaceful lives and presented with agonizing choices, the memory of which will haunt them forever.

It is simply that they are all human and the power of singling out someone to kill is more than they are built to handle.

Humans have remarkable brains, capable of seeing patterns in the midst of complexity, even chaos. This has served us and our primitive ancestors well. Dithering about whether that long coiled thing obscured by leaves is a snake or a vine is certainly not a good survival strategy.

But this ability to see figures in the clouds can also lead us into error. Eyewitness accounts have proven notoriously imperfect. Circumstantial evidence can weave a noose around a defendant's neck, when the discovery of one more fact would turn it into a halo.

Over the past several years, the Tribune has time and again demonstrated the way in which verdicts have been proven wrong, even when the defendant confesses.

- Forensic experts' theories turn out to be 180 degrees wrong.
- Police identification procedures give cues to uncertain eyewitnesses about who the police believe committed the crime.
- People are sometimes tortured or tricked into telling police they did something that they did not do.

The refinement of DNA testing has given chilling proof that any number of people on Death Row shouldn't have been there.

If figuring out what a defendant did bedevils the criminal justice system, deciding how to assess its moral quality against other similar behavior in order to know whether to exact the ultimate punshment is many times harder.

John Doe is a 20-year-old man with the mind of a 12-year-old. When he kills in an impulsive rage, is he more or less deserving of execution than Rhonda Roe who has a 120 IQ but was beaten and sexually abused by her father from the age of 8 until 15, when she ran away from home and became a prostitute?

We can find ways to discuss such questions meaningfully. The law over the centuries has provided as good a framework for it as we are likely to find. But still the issues are theological in their profound difficulty, especially when the stakes are life or death.

The reason to abolish capital punishment is not that it is immoral for a society to choose death over life. Every time we decide to do a major construction project or launch a space-shuttle program or send in troops (or allow people to drive 70 m.p.h.) we know fairly precisely how many people are likely to die as a result.

Nor is the reason that killing someone inflicts pain. That is almost beside the point, not least because we have the ability to anesthetize effectively if we have the wit to use it.

The real reason is that no government is good enough to entrust with the absolute power that capital punishment entails. (Chicago Tribune, July 3, 2006).

  • NEW VOICES: "The Failed Experiment"

Anna Quindlen, writing in the June 26, 2006 issue of Newsweek, reflected on the underlying questions surrounding the death penalty:

Hardly any other civilized place does this anymore. In the past three decades, the number of nations that have abolished the death penalty has risen from 16 to 86. Last year four countries accounted for nearly all executions worldwide: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
. . .
Much of the debate about the death penalty since it reared its ugly head again in the '70s has been about whether it is disproportionately meted out to poor minorities, whether it should be permitted for juvenile offenders, whether various methods constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Most of these discussions are designed not to examine underlying deep moral issues but to allow Americans to continue to put people to death and still feel good
about themselves.
. . .
Accusers recant, guilty parties confess, the lab makes a match that wasn't possible before. Since 1976, more than a thousand men and women have been executed in the United States. But during that same period more than 123 death-row inmates have been exonerated. That's a terrible statistical average. Put another way, more than 123 individuals truly guilty of savage crimes were walking free while someone else sat waiting on death row. And most, if not all, of those death-row inmates would have been wrongly executed if not for the lengthy appeals process death-penalty advocates like to decry.
. . .
[T]his is one of those issues where there isn't really a middle ground. Just because the electric chair has been phased out doesn't mean civilization has prevailed; it only means that people didn't like how reports of a convicted man's head bursting into flame made them feel about what they were doing. In judicial terms, Justice Harry Blackmun concluded in 1994 that all it came down to was figuring out how to "tinker with the machinery of death."

And he was officially finished with it, writing: "Rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed." The question isn't whether executions can be made painless: it's whether they're wrong. Everything else is just quibbling. And most of the quibbling simply boils down to trying to make the wrong seem right. (Anna Quindlen, Columnist, Newsweek, June 26, 2006).
  • NEW VOICES: Another Major Newspaper Calls for End to Capital Punishment

Reversing its long-standing support for capital punishment, the Spokane Spokesman-Review recently published an editorial calling for an end to capital punishment in the United States. The paper noted that the decision to change its stance on the death penalty came after careful consideration of growing evidence that the newspaper's "expectations of fairness and justice" are not being met and that the death penalty's "drawbacks now outweigh its merits." The editorial in full:

It took Jermaine Herron seven minutes to die, but it took Texas seven years to kill him. "I'll tell you what the cruel and unusual punishment is," said Jerry Nutt, whose wife and son Herron shot to death, "it's the victims having to wait for justice."

Nutt doesn't realize it, but Herron's journey from sentencing in 1999 to death by lethal injection 11 days ago in Huntsville, Texas, was swift. Nationally, the average wait on death row is more than 10 years.

Consider Dwayne Woods, who was sentenced in Spokane County to die for beating Telisha Shaver and Jade Moore to death with a baseball bat. That was in 1997, and Woods is still on death row, even though he initially asked for the death penalty.

Among the industrialized nations of the world, only the United States and Japan allow capital punishment. Of the 26 members of NATO, only the United States and Latvia allow capital punishment – and Latvia is perceived to be moving toward abolition of the death penalty. Because of the delays, the inconsistency, the drain on the public purse and the nightmarish possibility of executing an innocent person, it is time for the United States to end the practice.

Duncan case

In Idaho, Joseph Edward Duncan III is scheduled to go to trial in October, accused of slaying Brenda Groene, her son Slade and her boyfriend, Mark McKenzie, a year ago at Wolf Lodge. Federal charges also are pending in the kidnapping of Shasta and Dylan Groene and Dylan's death in Montana.

If Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas convicts Duncan and wins the death penalty, which he says he'll seek, he'll still have years of effort cut out for himself and probably his successors. Kootenai County will spend millions of dollars and a decade or longer of legal work before Duncan or any other defendant convicted today is put to death. Of the 20 people now on death row in Idaho, seven have been there longer than 20 years.

Steve Groene, the father of Slade, Shasta and Dylan, has encouraged Douglas to drop capital punishment in a plea bargain for life in prison without parole. Other relatives of the victims disagree, says Douglas, thus calling attention to one of many reasons to question whether capital punishment is administered with the evenhandedness that the American justice system professes.

Once a murder has been committed, is execution justified by the circumstances of the crime – or by the disposition of the victim's survivors? Are those who die alone and abandoned less entitled to have the law's sternest penalty applied on their behalf than those whose parents, spouses and children can make a persuasive plea for retribution?

Justice delayed

While Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens have questioned the constitutionality of lengthy delays between sentencing and execution, their colleague Justice Clarence Thomas wonders what else to expect when you "arm capital defendants with an arsenal of 'constitutional' claims with which they may delay their executions. ..."

Thomas' reasoning is appealing but deceptive. Those constitutional claims are protection against grim, irreversible mistakes. If Charles Fain, for example, had been put to death during his nearly 18 years on Idaho's death row, it would have been too late for the DNA tests that eventually proved the blood sample used to convict him wasn't his. In 2001, the same year Fain was freed in Idaho, Illinois Gov. George Ryan, his faith in the system shaken by a string of exonerations, imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in his state.

Unfortunately, mistakes and vagaries are more common in death cases than many law-abiding citizens like to think:

•Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a supporter of capital punishment, worries about the competence of lawyers who represent defendants in capital cases. One study in Washington state showed that 20 percent of the lawyers whose clients received the death penalty had disbarments, suspensions or arrests on their records. O'Connor thinks lawyers who handle such cases should have special qualifications.

•Noting that serial killers like Gary Ridgway and Robert Yates Jr. in Washington have been able to bargain for life sentences in exchange for information about their crimes, state Supreme Court Justice Charles Johnson wrote: "No rational explanation exists to explain why some individuals escape the penalty of death and others do not."

•In some jurisdictions, budget-strapped prosecutors decline to seek the death penalty, not because of mitigating circumstances in the case but because of the cost. One study at Duke University concluded that it cost North Carolina $2.16 million more per execution than murder cases with a sentence of life in prison. Other studies have reached similar findings. Think of how many police officers that money could hire.

•Whether a murderer is executed probably has less to do with the circumstances of the crime than it does with the state where it was committed. Texas alone accounts for a third of the more than 1,000 executions in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Add Virginia and Oklahoma and it's more than half. Twelve states have no death penalty, and five others have one but have never used it.

Despite the death penalty's vaunted deterrent effect, the murder rate in the nine states that have executed an average of one or more defendants a year since 1976 ranges from 5.2 per 100,000 population to 12.7. It's less than 5 in 10 of the 17 states that haven't used the death penalty in the past 30 years. Nationally, the murder rate is about 8 per 100,000, about the same as in 1976, although it has fluctuated throughout that period.

No tears for killers

Society's worst offenders merit no sympathy. They'll get none here. If you're the victim of a crime, especially a murder that's ripped a jagged hole in your life where a loved one used to be, you have a right to be outraged and emotional. You're entitled to think of fundamental safeguards like due process and a presumption of innocence as annoyances.

It's not the victim's responsibility to be calm and dispassionate, but it is the law's. Courts must deal firmly and decisively with murderers, but that isn't happening under a scheme that deals out death penalties with whimsical unpredictability and makes victims wait years, even decades, for resolution.

Life without parole is a better solution. So-called BTK killer Dennis Rader and convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui have recently been dispatched to spend the rest of their lives in isolation. Political assassin Sirhan Sirhan and madman Charles Manson remain securely behind bars, sociological artifacts from another era. And their upkeep is a taxpayer's bargain compared with the endless legal expenses consumed by capital cases.

For those to whom the death penalty is an inviting way to even the score, life in prison with no parole may still be unsatisfying gruel. But the law is a compact that holds all of society to a set of expectations. Crime is a violation of the compact, a breakdown in social order. The court system is expected to restore order and to do it with efficiency and predictability. The goal is justice for all, not vengeance for some. (Spokane Spokesman-Review, May 28, 2006) (emphasis added).

 

  • NEW VOICES: Newspaper Changes Its Position-'Commonsense Finding is that Death Penalty Has Failed and Should be Abolished'

An editorial in the Asbury Park Press, a newspaper that formerly supported capital punishment, called on New Jersey policymakers to abandon the state's costly death penalty and replace it with the "sure and swift" sentence of life without parole. Stating that New Jersey has wasted millions of dollars on the death penalty, but has not carried out an execution since it was reinstated in1982, the editorial noted:

Can it really be 22 years since Robert O. Marshall cowardly hired hit men to shoot and kill his wife and the mother of his three children for insurance money? So he could continue an extramarital affair and carry on with his country club life? Sadly, it has been that long for the 66-year-old former Toms River insurance salesman.

Marshall was on death row for two decades before a court found his representation during the death penalty phase of his trial was lacking. The court overturned the death penalty and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that decision, leaving it up to the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office to decide whether to seek the death penalty again.

Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher said Friday his office struggled with the decision, but ultimately decided not to ask another jury to sentence Marshall to death because of the difficulty in mounting a case so long after the crime was committed and the likelihood that more appeals would take years to resolve at great public expense.

"This troublesome and distressing conclusion was made only after extensive consultation with the family of the victim, Maria Marshall," Kelaher said.

In March, we reluctantly called for another death penalty trial, with concern about the issues raised by Kelaher and the hope that Marshall would never be paroled. However, we understand the prosecutor's reasoning that going through another round of legal proceedings that would cost more millions over a decade or more is problematic. And we urge him in the strongest terms to follow through with his pledge to oppose parole of Marshall forever. He could be released in 2014.

Which again brings us to the issue of New Jersey's death penalty. Since its reinstitution in 1982, no cold-blooded murderer has been executed. Nearly 50 death sentences have been overturned by higher courts. For now, a yearlong moratorium on executions is in effect while a study commission looks at how New Jersey enforces its death penalty statute.

The commission should file its report now with the common-sense finding that New Jersey's death penalty is a failure and should be abolished in favor of life in prison without parole.

To be effective, justice must be sure and swift. New Jersey's death penalty statute is neither. It is such a drain on resources as to be counterproductive.

Think of the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on scum like Marshall. Multiply that by 50 or more. Life without chance of parole. That's a sentence whose execution can be sure and swift. (Asbury Park Press, May 16, 2006) (emphasis added).

  • Science Journal Recommends: "Let the death penalty die a natural death."

A recent editorial in Nature, the international weekly journal of science, called on scientists and doctors to refuse to participate in executions: "Don't advise, don't prescribe, don't inject. Let the death penalty die a natural death." Noting that courts are now considering whether the death penalty by lethal injection should be outlawed as inhumane, the editorial points out that the procedure was largely developed without the input of physicians, nurses, or scientists. It also notes that research has shown that prisoners might still be conscious, though paralyzed, when potassium chloride goes through their veins and stops their heart. Their editorial states:

Can the death penalty by lethal injection, as practiced in 37 US states, be outlawed as inhumane? The courts are considering this question, which can be separated from the more familiar one about the morality of capital punishment.

Their judgements are complicated by the fact that, since the procedure came into use three decades ago, few physicians, nurses, or scientists have had anything to do with it. Physicians and nurses are ethically barred from assisting. Yet it is the dominant method in the United States, and has been used to kill more than 800 prisoners there.

Some information has emerged on the workings of the three-drug injection, however. One analysis (L.G. Koniaris et al. Lancet 365, 1412-1414; 2005) suggests that 43% of prisoners might still be conscious, although totally paralysed, when the potassium chloride rips through their veins on the way to stopping their heart.

There are powerful arguments for abandoning the death penalty, regardless of its morality. DNA, for example, has helped prove many death-row inmates innocent, exposing the flaws of an irreversible sanction. And statistical analyses indicate that the death penalty is disproportionately administered to minority populations.

Earlier this year, a California court told state authorities that they must persuade an anaesthetist to oversee an execution, come up with a new protocol for lethal injections - or face a hearing on whether the punishment is inhumane. The last option looks likely.

If suitably qualified individuals refuse to help prepare a new protocol, the state will face the prospect of continuing to use amateurs to kill people with arbitrary and outmoded technology.

Scientists often abjure political activities, and could in this case argue that they are merely providing a basis from which police-makers can make decisions. But this decision must be taken by the physicians and scientists themselves. All that is required is a refusal to participate. Men and women of science and medicine should stand shoulder to shoulder on this. Don't advise, don't prescribe, don't inject. Let the death penalty die a natural death. (Nature, May 4, 2006).

  • NEW SOURCE: Scientific American Looks at Flaws in the Death Penalty

Philip Yam is the News Editor of Scientific American Magazine. He recently posted an item on the magazine's Web site about the death penalty. Some excerpts from the posting, entitled "Science versus the Death Penalty," are below:

The U.S. remains the only developed Western nation to permit executions despite serious flaws in the system. No need for any pacificist proclivity or liberal leaning to see that--just look at the science.

First, there's DNA evidence. Although it cannot prove guilt beyond all doubt--who can forget O.J. Simpson?--it can definitively prove innocence. The first DNA exoneration occurred in 1989, and since then many on death row have been set free because of it--the Death Penalty Information Center counts 122 exonerations since 1973. It showed that too many convictions resulted from sloppy or overzealous police work and prosecution, or incompetent defense attorneys. It helped convince then Republican governor George Ryan of Illinois in 2003 to declare the death penalty "arbitrary and capricious" and to commute the sentences of all 157 inmates on the state's death row.

But DNA isn't the only contribution from science to this issue. Thanks to psychology studies, we know that the human brain can, with rather disturbing ease, create false memories. (See, for instance, a news story on the topic in the December 2005 issue of Scientific American Mind, or the feature article "Creating False Memories," by Eiizabeth Loftus in the September 1997 Scientific American.) We know that witness testimony can be unreliable, even when it comes from upstanding citizens and not just from co-defendants or jailhouse snitches who have been promised sweet deals. We know that some personality types are more likely to yield to the pressures to confess--and that these people do so just to please their interrogators or to avoid harsh treatment.

Most states are now recognizing the weaknesses of the death penalty. The number of capital sentences have dropped from a peak in the early to mid-1990s of a bit more than 300 per year to about 100 in 2005, according to data compiled in the December 17 issue of the Economist.
. . .
Science has shown that our death penalty system is deeply flawed. Now the U.S. public needs to see those flaws. (Scientific American, Blog: Sciam Observations, posted Jan. 5, 2006 by Philip Yam).

 

  • NEW VOICES: Texas Paper Calls for Halt to Executions

The San Antonio Express-News, which supports the death penalty, recently called for a halt to executions in Texas because of concerns about the ongoing problems at the Houston Crime Lab. The Express-News stated:

This month, New Jersey lawmakers voted to halt executions while a task force reviews the fairness and costs of imposing the death penalty.

Texas should consider doing the same but for slightly different reasons.

The disturbing facts coming out of an independent investigation into cases handled by the Houston Police Department lab beg for a temporary suspension of executions, at least until all cases the lab handled are reviewed.

In a report issued this month, an independent investigator stated the Houston Police Department crime lab failed to report evidence that might have helped criminal defendants and found errors in almost one-third of the cases reviewed, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Among the cases in which the investigator found problems are three involving death row inmates. That is deeply disturbing.

Texas is one of 38 states with a death penalty. At least 13 states have appointed study commissions. Texas should do the same.
...
Texas needs to halt further use of the execution chamber until all the evidence used to condemn defendants, especially those from Harris County, is scientifically validated.

There are 410 prisoners on Texas' death row, 143 of them from Harris County. Some of those cases go back to 1976 and were not part of the initial review by the independent investigator, which looked only at cases between 1987 and 2002.

The investigator has now extended his review to include cases going back to 1980.

The state has good reason to delay the 11 executions scheduled through April, including one set for today.

The integrity of the Texas criminal justice system, which is responsible for one-third of the executions in this country, is at stake.

We are not against the death penalty, but the state must be certain that innocent people are not executed. (San Antonio Express-News, January 19, 2006).

  • Bill Kurtis Describes His Shift on the Death Penalty

A&E television host and well-known investigative journalist Bill Kurtis chronicles his journey from death penalty supporter to capital punishment opponent in his newly released book, The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice. In an interview with the Kansas City Star, Kurtis stated, “Look, I was for the death penalty, but looking at these cases and the rapidly increasing number of exonerations, there are just too many possibilities for error.” He went on to observe, “You have a system with too many working parts. We have malpractice in medicine. We don’t expect the Yankees to win all their games. And yet we assume the criminal justice system is without error.” Kurtis’s new book examines two cases of death row exonerees, detailing the errors that led to their wrongful convictions. Through his investigation, Kurtis came to the realization that capital punishment must end because the system cannot guarantee accuracy. In his call for abandoning capital punishment, he states, “We have two little final obstacles to get over. One is that we have to convince people that life without parole is bad. Worse than killing somebody. And secondly, we have to get over the fact that it’s some kind of closure for the families. The only reason the death penalty is still there is that we want to do something for the victims. It’s ‘closure.’ But what if you lose your wife from cancer, or a car wreck? Someone killed in Iraq – what do you do then? It’s not closure. It never is.” (Kansas City Star, December 16, 2004).

  • Palm Beach Post Editorial: Plea Bargain Underscores the Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty

While applauding a life-sentence plea bargain arranged by Palm Beach County's State Attorney in an especially heinous murder, the Palm Beach Post said the state had "forfeit[ed] the moral standing to execute anyone else." The State Attorney said that he agreed to let the defendant plead guilty to killing 5 people because the life-without-parole sentnece will bring finality. The Post noted: "The state saves not only the cost of a trial; the victims' relatives - who supported the deal - do not have to relive the horror. The state will save more by avoiding years of appeals; all credible research shows that incarceration is far cheaper than litigation. Most important, [the defendant] never again will threaten the public.". . . "But," the paper further stated, "[i]t is impossible to craft a law that reserves capital punishment for only a certain class of criminal. Because Florida and the 37 other states where the death penalty is legal won't accept that fact, governments waste untold millions each year on post-conviction appeals over whether the facts of the case support the ultimate punishment." (Palm Beach Post Editorial, December 16, 2004).

  • Major Texas Newspapers Call for a halt to Executions in Cases from Houston

Following a call from the Houston Police Chief and from state legislators to halt executions in cases from Harris County, four of the state's largest newspapers published editorials in support of a moratorium on executions. The Houston police crime lab has been plagued with errors in DNA testing and preservation of evidence. There have been far more executions from Harris County (Houston) than from any other county in the country.

AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

(N)othing can justify an execution if there is any good reason to question the evidence upon which the death sentence relies.

That's why we urge Gov. Rick Perry to honor the requests from Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to suspend all scheduled executions of inmates from Harris County until the justice system can review the cases against them.

Such a review is necessary because of the wretched work of the Houston Police Department's crime lab.
. . .
There's no harm in waiting, and there could be enormous wrong in not waiting. No one should be executed for a crime he or she did not commit.

Not even in Texas. (Austin American-Statesman, October 7, 2004)


DALLAS MORNING NEWS

We respect Republican Gov. Rick Perry's support of the death penalty. But we don't understand his shrugging off Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt's request for a moratorium on executions until the problems with Houston's notorious crime lab get cleaned up.

No less a death penalty supporter than state Sen. John Whitmire understands the significance of Chief Hurtt's request. If the state executes a person who, it later turns out, was convicted based upon faulty evidence from the troubled crime lab, the state will be responsible for an injustice of unimaginable magnitude. And death penalty opponents would have more reason to decry Texas executions.
. . .
If Texas is going to keep executing prisoners, it needs to make sure the cases are solid. As a death penalty supporter, you'd think Gov. Perry would see it that way. (Dallas Morning News, October 7, 2004)

HOUSTON CHRONICLE

It is a travesty of justice for Texas to continue administering lethal injections to death row inmates from Harris County even as forensic tests on hundreds of pieces of questionable evidence remain to be carried out. Even more disturbing, Houston police have only just begun a review of the contents of 280 mislabeled and previously unaccounted for boxes of evidence they discovered in August.
...
On the same day that Miniel was executed, the state released Ernest Ray Willis, a death row inmate for more than 17 years. Willis was convicted of setting a fatal fire. Modern analysis failed to find that arson had been committed.

Fortunately for Willis, capital punishment in Texas is not so swift. If gross injustice can be detected 17 years after the fact, a pause of a few months to recheck boxes of newly discovered evidence is surely justified. (Houston Chronicle, October 8, 2004)


SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

Members of the Harris County judiciary should stop setting execution dates for Texas death row inmates until next spring.
...
Gov. Rick Perry refused a request by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, this week to halt the executions of Harris County inmates until March because of the quality of work at the crime lab.

Those valid concerns warrant a suspension of the executions.
...
Because the executive and legislative branches of state government refuse to address the issue, the judiciary is the last resort. (San Antonio Express-News, October 9, 2004)

  • Time to Re-Think the Death Penalty

An op-ed in Oregon's Albany Democrat Herald called on the state to re-think its reliance on the death penalty:

20 years after voters in Oregon reinstated the death penalty, it is time to take a dispassionate look and conclude that it hasn't done much good.

In the general election of 1984, Oregon voters overwhelmingly called for the death penalty to be resumed. 2 initiatives were on the ballot that year. One, calling for capital punishment or mandatory life sentences for aggravated murder, passed by 893,818 to 296,988. A companion measure, exempting the death penalty from the provision in the state constitution against cruel and vindictive punishment, passed by 653,009 to 521,687.

One of the main arguments was that once killers were executed, we could be sure that they would never do any more harm.

The justification - prevention of additional killings - has not worked out in practice. For one thing, the death penalty does not apply to ordinary 1st-time murder convictions. For another, the judicial system has failed to live up to the intention expressed by the voters. For countless legal and procedural reasons, the system has so far failed to carry out the mandate of 1984. And the pace of murders in Oregon has been roughly the same since the 1970s - 100 or more a year.

The rate per 100,000 has declined as the population increased, perhaps because of Measure 11, which put people in prison for violent crimes well short of murder, rather than letting them off on probation.

There have been 2 executions since the death penalty went back on the books. In both cases, the condemned men refused to participate in appeals; they wanted to be executed. The system works when murderers want the state to help them end their incarceration. It does not work when the criminals refuse to consent to be put to death, which is most of the time.

29 men were on Oregon's death row as of last spring, some for as long as 16 years. One of those who had been there the longest, since 1988, had just had his conviction overturned for the third time, and his case was sent back to the trial court for another penalty phase.

Death penalty cases are more expensive and take longer than other murder cases. Typically the defendant gets 2 expert attorneys appointed for him rather than 1. And there are 2 trials in each case, one to determine guilt, the other to set the penalty.

Summing up: Executions have been all but non-existent. Even so, death penalty cases cost more. The existence of the penalty has not deterred murders. Lifelong prison terms have the same result as executions in keeping the public safe.

It's not that repeat murderers don't deserve the death penalty. They do. But the existence of the penalty in Oregon is not doing anything except to cause expense and delays. It's time to let it go.

We don't even need a constitutional change, which is unlikely anyway. All we need is prosecutors making up their mind to seek true-life sentences instead. (Hasso Hering, Albany Democrat-Herald, August 29, 2004) (emphasis added).

  • Time to Review the Costs of the Death Penalty

A recent San Jose Mercury News editorial recommended including the death penalty in the California Performance Review prepared for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to reduce public spending. The paper stated that the abandonment of capital punishment would save valuable taxpayer dollars in the state and praised local efforts to support a temporary halt to executions while capital punishment is reviewed. The editorial noted:

Termination of the death penalty would add immeasurably to the $32 billion in savings projected if all of the recommendations in the review are adopted. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, "The death penalty is escaping the decisive cost-benefit analysis to which every other program is being put in times of austerity."

The center asserts further that "the death penalty is much more expensive than its closest alternative -- life imprisonment with no parole. Capital trials are longer and more expensive at every step than other murder trials."

The Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara has wisely adopted a resolution recommending a moratorium and study of the death penalty in California. This is a step in the right direction. (San Jose Mercury News, August 8, 2004; emphasis added.)

  • The Arizona Republic Reverses Position on the Death Penalty

The Arizona Republic, a long-time supporter of capital punishment, has called on the state to abandon the death penalty and make life in prison without parole the maximum punishment under Arizona law. The editorial stated:

The argument against the death penalty has become more profound and salient. Simply put, we now know beyond dispute that the criminal-justice system wrongly sentences people to death. We even know their names, because since 1970, 101 of them have subsequently been found innocent. Moreover, the pace of exonerations has been accelerating, due in part to the wider use of DNA evidence.
...
The theoretical argument that the criminal-justice system, being a human institution, is bound to be fallible is no longer theoretical. It's a reality, and public policy must confront it. Currently, 12 states do not allow capital punishment as a sentencing option. (Arizona Republic, July 28, 2002) Read the entire editorial

.

  • Washington Times editorial calls Judge Rakoff's opinion "disturbingly powerful"

In a recent editorial, the Washington Times noted the strengths of U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff's recent decision finding the federal death penalty unconstitutional. The Times, which supports the death penalty, stated:

U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff has written a disturbingly powerful legal opinion in support of his finding that the federal death sentence is unconstitutional. While it may well be overturned on appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals or beyond, staunch supporters of capital punishment's efficacy and constitutionality, which is the adamant position of this page, should be alert to the potential power of Judge Rakoff's legal analysis. Unlike the typical outriding opinions that surface from federal trial courts, this opinion is not merely, or necessarily, driven by leftish ideological predelictions. Rather, Judge Rakoff has grounded his opinion on a reasonable (if not necessarily persuasive) application of recent Supreme Court case law to a new factual reality DNA testing. (Washington Times, editorial, 7/3/02) See also, Judge Rakoff's opinion and DPIC's Press Release.

  • Stuart Taylor on the Innocence Protection Act

In a Legal Times article, Stuart Taylor writes, "Congress and the President have a chance this year to show that they care as much about avoiding the execution (and imprisonment) of innocent defendants as they do about punishing the guilty ones. They can adopt the Innocence Protection Act, a bipartisan proposal co-sponsored by death penalty supporters and opponents who agree that you can be tough on crime without punishing innocent people." The IPA legislation, which has bipartisan support in Congress, aims to provide prisoners with improved access to DNA evidence and to ensure that indigent defendants in capital cases have competent lawyers. (Legal Times, April 24, 2002). See also, Recent Legislative Activity and Innocence.

  • Democrats should "take the high ground on capital punishment"

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Bill Keller suggests that Democratic presidential hopefuls either voice opposition to the death penalty or stand behind death penalty reform efforts, such as those cited in the recent Illinois Capital Punishment Commission's report:

A gutsy Republican governor, George Ryan of Illinois, has now pointed the way to a moral high ground that happens to be politically tenable, too. Mr. Ryan appointed a commission rich in courtroom experience to study the state's practice of capital punishment, and this week it produced a clearheaded (and surprisingly readable) document. The report inventories the arbitrary and error-prone system that puts people "sometimes the wrong people" on death row. It proposes a menu of reforms, among them videotaping interrogations to prevent dubious confessions, expanded use of DNA testing and diminishing reliance on single-witness or stool-pigeon accounts. Democrats should press for a nationwide moratorium on executions pending real reforms to minimize the risk of killing people by mistake. Real boldness would be to join a narrow majority of the Illinois commission, and the rest of the civilized world, in disavowing the death penalty as a barbaric practice. But the Ryan commission offers a political halfway house for the less courageous. "Repair or repeal," said Thomas P. Sullivan, the former prosecutor and co-chairman of the Illinois commission. "Fix the capital punishment system or abolish it. There is no other principled recourse." (New York Times, op-ed, 4/20/02)

  • EDITORIAL: Florida Should Establish Death Penalty Study Commission

In a recent editorial, the Orlando Sentinel recommends that Governor Bush impanel a commission to study the state's death penalty, stating:

The U.S. Supreme Court action that forced Florida to suspend executions presents an excellent opportunity for the state to take a critical look at capital punishment.
. . .
When this newspaper -- which has supported the death penalty for many years -- suggested such a commission last year, Mr. Bush shrugged off that notion. Now he has another chance to do the right thing.
. . .
Florida's system of capital punishment clearly has problems. Florida leads the nation in the number of people -- 22 -- whose death sentences were vacated because the defendants later were exonerated, or because of serious flaws in the way cases were handled. Those flaws included misconduct by police and prosecutors and by inept defense lawyers. During that same period, the state executed 51. The possibility of executing an innocent person should alarm any fair-minded person. (Orlando Sentinel, editorial, 2/10/02)

  • Ann Landers Opposed to the Death Penalty

In her nationally syndicated column, Ann Landers stated that she was "strictly opposed to the death penalty, no matter how heinous the crime." Landers, who was responding to a letter from the Constitution Project, noted her support for the Project's proposed legislative reforms of the death penalty, calling them "compassionate and sensible." (Washington Post, 1/27/02) The Constitution Project's Death Penalty Initiative, a bipartisan committee of death penalty supporters and opponents concerned about the risks of wrongful executions, recommended 18 reforms for the federal and state death penalty systems.

  • The Chicago Tribune calls for an extension on the moratorium on executions in Illinois until greater reforms are enacted: Only after those reforms are in place should the debate turn to this question: Has the criminal justice system been sufficiently fixed that Illinois can lift [Gov.] Ryan's moratorium on executions with the assurance that no innocent person will be put to death? So far, the answer is easy: No. Before there is to be assurance that our system issues punishments that are fair and correct, many more reforms need to be enacted. The Tribune noted the many flaws in Illinois' justice system that have been revealed in the paper's investigations, including prosecutorial misconduct, convictions based on the notoriously unreliable testimony of jailhouse informants, and inadequate defense representation. (Chicago Tribune, 12/31/01)
  • E.R. Shipp Comments on the Death Penalty

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer E. R. Shipp wrote recently about Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and American Taliban soldier John Walker in the New York Daily News:

I don't have to believe in Abu-Jamal to demand due process. I just have to believe in the American ideal of justice.
And I don't have to buy into Walker's parents' plea for understanding of their son to see that the death penalty won't fly in his case. . . .
. . .
This is where I stand: A life for a life is the way of the ancient world, not of the 21st century - and it should not be the way of this country, which claims to be the standard-bearer of all that is civilized. (N.Y. Daily News, 12/23/01)

  • In a recent editorial, the Charlotte Observer urged North Carolina to delay executions beyond the stay occasioned by the recent terrorist attacks:

Gov. Mike Easley has wisely postponed until Oct. 5 the execution of convicted murderer Robert Bacon, who was scheduled to be executed Friday. That's the right step, given the overwhelming tragedies of the past week and the disruptions in American life that have followed. An even wiser course of action would be for Gov. Easley to issue an executive order - and for the General Assembly to adopt a law - postponing all executions in North Carolina until officials can demonstrate that capital punishment can be applied in a fair and equitable way in this state. (Charlotte Observer, 9/24/01)

  • In a recent editorial, the Minneapolis Star Tribune cautioned against using the terrorist attacks to expand the death penalty:

The vicious attack on America eight days ago likely stirred more support for the death penalty. It is understandable to wrap the mind around vengeance after such a horrible act. What better way to punish the murderers and avenge the memories of thousands of innocents than to take the lives of the guilty? Yet before evil terrorists wounded American hearts, the United States was experiencing a welcome, significant decline in state-sponsored executions. Short of eliminating capital punishment altogether, the next best thing is to fulfill as few death sentences as possible. (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 9/19/01)

  • Texas Paper Condemns Execution of Juvenile Offender

The case of Napoleon Beazley, a juvenile offender in Texas who was scheduled to be executed on August 15 before receiving a stay, prompted the following Austin American-Statesman editorial:

With a horrified world watching, Texas plans to execute Napoleon Beazley next week. If Beazley is killed, it will be to the detriment of justice. Gov. Rick Perry, his Board of Pardons and Paroles and the courts should block this execution and seek a lesser penalty for several reasons. One is that Beazley was a minor when the murder for which he was sentenced was committed. Another is evidence suggesting that racial prejudice, procedural unfairness and inaccurate testimony about the youth's danger to society led to the death sentence. (Austin American-Statesman, editorial, 8/8/01)

  • Roger Chesley, an associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot and former death penalty supporter, recently expressed his changing views about the death penalty:

[S]lowly, grudgingly, I've come to believe that the death penalty should be ended in Virginia and across this country. I'm also well aware that the Roman Catholic Church, of which I'm a member, opposes the death penalty. That stance has had an effect on me. Life in prison without parole is a reasonable -- though imperfect -- alternative. Our collective quest for vengeance might not be satisfied. But we as a society won't have to wonder whether we executed an innocent person. (The Virginian-Pilot, 6/30/01)

  • Washington Times Op-Ed Voices Support for Innocence Protection Act

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Times, Bruce Fein cited the need for competent defense attorneys in death penalty cases and urged support for the Innocence Protection Act, stating:

[I]t is disgraceful for the government in [death penalty] cases to deny an indigent accused at least mediocre defense counsel to bolster what may be the chief safeguard against executing the innocent .... Indeed, nothing even semi-convincing can be said against a statutory right to average defense counsel when life hangs in the balance, as championed by Sen. Pat Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and an array of his apostles in the Innocence Protection Act of 2001 (S.486)
...
[W]hat the Leahy legislation seeks is not a Clarence Darrow for every death penalty prosecution of an indigent, but only midrange defense counsel in plentiful supply. Finally, there seems but one apt characterization of a nation as blessed with riches as ours turning fastidiously parsimonious when it comes to forestalling executions of innocent paupers: morally repugnant. (Washington Times, 3/20/01)

  • R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., Editor-in-Chief, The American Spectator Magazine: "The most compelling reason for ending state executions is that, though the state has a right to defend its citizenry, capital punishment merely silences life. It neither dramatizes the horror of crime nor speaks out for life. It was once thought to do both, but not in our brutal society. Capital punishment actually adds to the increasing anger and morbidness of society." (12/14/00)
  • Lance Morrow, Time Magazine columnist and former death penalty supporter, recently wrote the following:"I think those arguing in favor of capital punishment now are indulging in a form of nostalgia. Capital punishment no longer works as a morality play. Each execution (divorced from its moral meaning, including its capacity to shock and to warn the young) simply becomes part of the great messy pageant, the vast and voracious stupidity, the Jerry Springer show of American life. Maybe most of our moral opinions are formed by emotions and aesthetic reactions. My opinion is this: Capital punishment has lost its moral meaning. Having lost its moral meaning, it has become as immoral as any other expression of violence. And therefore we should stop doing it." (Time.com, 5/3/00)
  • The Dallas Morning News editorialized for broad changes in Texas's system of capital punishment, saying that charges of "capriciousness and unfairness" are justified. The paper called for changes in the appointment of defense attorneys, the appeals process, clemency, and the treatment of foreign nationals. It called for the elimination of the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded. (12/20/98). See DPIC's report, The Future of the Death Penalty in the U.S.A Texas-Sized Crisis.
  • The Virginian Pilot voiced its new stance on the death penalty- opposition. "The time has come to reconsider this brutal legacy and, guided by Virginia's experience and Virginians' values, to stand for another way. A review of the cases of the 56 individuals put to death in the state over the past two decades reveals an inherent and inevitable flaw in the administration of capital punishment. In no other instance is it so essential that justice be impervious to fortune or whim. And yet, despite lawmakers' and courts' best efforts, decisions as to who dies and who lives hinge regularly on matters having little to do with guilt or innocence. All too frequently, the determining factors are quality of legal representation, personal wealth of the defendant, race of either the victim or the alleged perpetrator and even the politics or philosophy of those charge with prosecution." (Virginian Pilot, 10/19/98)