On December 22, attorneys for John Green filed a brief with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals asking that a pre-trial hearing concerning the constitutionality of the state's death penalty be allowed to continue. An amicus brief in support of continuing the hearing was also filed by former governors, legislators, former judges and prosecutors, victim family members and freed death row inmates, all of whom shared a concern over the risk of wrongful executions in Texas. The brief stated, "[U]nless Texas addresses the proven causes of wrongful convictions, including eyewitness misidentification, faulty forensics, unreliable informant evidence, among other documented factors, the state runs the grave risk of executing an innocent person.” The signatories included: three former governors, including Gov. Mark White (TX), Gov. Parris Glendening (MD) and Gov. Joe Kernan (IN); former Dallas Assistant District Attorney James A. Fry; legislators, including Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis; and death row exonerees including Anthony Graves, who was freed from Texas’ death row in October after new evidence proved his innocence.
On January 18, 2011, seven religious leaders from Texas will hold a groundbreaking panel discussion in Houston addressing faith-based views on the death penalty. The panel will be moderated by Sister Helen Prejean (pictured), author of Dead Man Walking, and Vicki Schieber of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. The free presentation will include leaders from a diversity of faiths and denominations, including: Cardinal Daniel Dinardo of the Roman Catholic Church; Rev. Daniel Malendez, President of Pastors in Action; Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Evangelical Lutheran Church; Rabbi David Lyon of the Congregation Beth Israel; Rev. Mike Cole of the Presbytery of New Covenant; Rev. Harvey Clemons, Jr. of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, and Bishop Janice Huie of the United Methodist Church. Click here to see a brochure on the event (RSVP).
A recent op-ed by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof (pictured) of the New York Times focuses on the possible innocence of Kevin Cooper, a black defendant on California's death row. Kristof writes, “This case is a travesty. It underscores the central pitfall of capital punishment: no system is fail-safe. How can we be about to execute a man when even some of America’s leading judges believe he has been framed?” Cooper faces execution for a 1983 quadruple-murder of a white family. According to Kristof, numerous anomalies in the case suggest that evidence used to implicate Cooper in the murders may have been corrupted. For example, a beige T-shirt was offered as evidence because it had a trace of Cooper’s blood, but the blood sample contained preservatives used by the police when they keep blood in test tubes. Later, a forensic scientist found that a sample from the test tube that contained Cooper’s blood held by the police contained blood from more than one person, suggesting that someone removed blood from the test tube and later filled the tube back to the top with another person’s blood. Police also failed to investigate other suspects. A woman reported that one of her housemates had shown up with several other people on the night of the murders wearing blood-spattered overalls and driving a vehicle similar to the one stolen from the murdered family. The witnesses said the man was no longer wearing a beige T-shirt he had on earlier in the evening and his hatchet, now missing from his tool area, resembled the one found in the crime scene. The witnesses gave the bloody overalls to the police for testing, but because of the police's focus on Cooper as the suspect, they threw the overalls in the trash. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit refused to rehear the case, but five of its federal judges concluded, “California may be about to execute an innocent man.” Six other judges dissented from the decision not to review the case. Read full op-ed below.
In a recent editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times supported the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois during the current legislative session. The paper noted its past support for capital punishment: "In the past, we've supported the death penalty as long as the legal system gives the accused a fair trial that results in a verdict of guilt beyond resonable doubt. Sadly, in light of experiences in recent years, that goal seems unrealistic." Among the reasons for favoring abolition, the paper wrote that, "The death penalty is arbitrary - handed down in some cases but not in others with similar facts. Even with the best safeguards in place, it's unreliable, with irreversible consequences. And it's costly," consuming $100 million in the past 7 years. As an alternative, the editorial noted that, "Like the death penalty, life without parole keeps heinous criminals off our streets, deters serious offenses and gives victims a sense that justice has been served." Read full editorial below.
On October 13, officials from the U.S. and Europe held what may have been the first ever international forum of law enforcement officers on the merits of the death penalty in reducing violent crime. The officers discussed whether capital punishment actually helps to keep citizens safe, assists healing for victims, and uses crime-fighting resources efficiently. The panelists, who included current and former police officers from the U.S. land Europe, addressed issues such as deterrence, closure to victims’ families, and costs as compared to alternative sentences. The panel was held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. You can find resources regarding the forum and video clips of the presenters' remarks on DPIC's new webpage here.
At a recent press conference in Texas, prosecutors accused former district attorney Charles Sebesta of hiding and tampering with evidence, and of threatening witnesses in order to convict Anthony Graves in 1994. Graves was recently exonerated from death row and freed after 18 years of confinement for a crime he did not commit. Kelly Siegler, a special prosecutor hired to review Graves's case after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned his conviction, said Sebesta indicted a woman without evidence, fabricated evidence, manipulated witnesses and took advantage of victims. Graves was convicted of being one of two men responsible for a fire that killed 6 people in their home. His co-defendant, Robert Earl Carter, admitted two weeks before his execution that he had lied about Graves’s involvement. Siegler said, “Charles Sebasta handled this case in a way that could best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare.” Siegler also went on to say that what occurred in this case was the worst example of prosecutorial misconduct she had ever seen: “It’s a travesty, what happened in Anthony Graves' trial."
Elie Wiesel, acclaimed author, human rights activist, Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor, spoke about his opposition to the death penalty during a lecture on capital punishment at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in October. Wiesel, who lost both parents and a sister in the Nazi death camps, focused his remarks on family members of murder victims. He said that murderers should be punished more harshly than other prisoners and encouraged the criminal justice system to focus efforts on the survivors of violent crimes "so that families will not feel cheated by the law." "But," he said, "death is not the answer." He said that he might change his stance if the death penalty could bring back victims. He remarked, “I know the pain of those who survive. Believe me, I know… Your wound is open. It will remain. You are mourning, and how can I not feel the pain of your mourning? But death is not the answer.”
On October 13, law enforcement officers from the U.S. and Europe held the first public discussion about whether the death penalty helps or hurts in keeping citizens safe, assists healing for victims, and uses crime-fighting resources efficiently. The panelists addressed issues such as deterrence, closure to victims’ families, and costs in relation to alternatives. Former Detective Superintendent Bob Denmark of Lancashire Constabulary, England, who investigated over 100 homicides in the U.K., said, “Out of the 100 or more cases that I was personally involved in… in the vast majority of those, I do not think deterrence would have been an issue at all.” He continued, “If you were to use execution of killers as a deterrent, I think you would end up having to execute every killer in the hope that you might deter some potential killer in the future. I think the deterrence argument, while I do not dismiss it, is very, very weak.” Police Chief James Abbott of West Orange, New Jersey, the Republican appointee to the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, talked of how his time with the study commission changed his mind about the death penalty. He said, “I ... know that in practice, [the death penalty] does more harm than good. So while I hang on to my theoretical views, as I’m sure many of you will, I stand before you to say that society is better off without capital punishment… Life in prison without parole in a maximum-security detention facility is a better alternative.” The forum also included Ronald Hampton, Executive Director of National Black Police Association International Leadership Institute and a 23-year veteran of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, and António Cluny, Senior Attorney General and Public Prosecutor from Portugal.
("Fighting Crime in the U.S. and Internationally: Is the Death Penalty Necessary? A Unique Conversation Between U.S. and European Law Enforcement," National Press Club, Washington, DC, October 13, 2010). See Costs, Deterrence and New Voices.
A recent op-ed by Professor Gerald Uelmen of Santa Clara Law School in the Sacramento Bee highlighted major concerns about California’s death penalty, including its high costs and the difficulty in finding competent representation for death row inmates. Uelmen also noted that California has the broadest death penalty law in the country, which allows for more death-eligible offenses than other death penalty states. According to the op-ed, “Although death penalty laws are supposed to narrow the discretion of prosecutors and juries by requiring 'special circumstances' for a death sentence, in California there is nothing 'special' about special circumstances. Virtually every first-degree murder can be made into a death case if the prosecutor chooses.” California currently has the largest death row in the United States with more than 700 inmates, more than 40% of whom are still awaiting for the appointment of a lawyer to handle constitutionally-mandated appeals. Meanwhile, the state has cut the budget of the Public Defender’s Office, limited the role of the California Habeas Corpus Resource Center, and failed to appropriate funds needed to appoint private lawyers. California is also planning to build a new $400 million death row prison that will house inmates at three times the cost of holding those with life without parole sentences. Prof. Uelmen was also Executive Director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice that carefully examined the state's death penalty. Read full op-ed below.
Police chiefs from around the country are expressing fears that crime rates will increase as law enforcement resources are cut during the economic downturn. In Sacramento, California, homicides are up 43% and assaults on police officers are up 13%, while the department was forced to eliminate its vice unit. In Phoenix, Arizona, a lack of funds is causing police vacancies to go unfilled. Similar concerns were expressed by police chiefs in Maryland and Virginia. Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said, "For the longest time, people thought that the police didn't matter, didn't affect the crime rate. Now we've seen that's not true." The Research Forum said that law enforcement agencies experienced an average cut of 7% this year. In the past, improved policing led to dramatic drops in homicides in such places as New York City and Washington, D.C. Now those gains are in jeopardy. Budget reductions in Sacramento forced the city to cut important government programs and services, such as mental health services and job training programs for inmates being released from prison. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are also in decline.