A new coalition of religious and civic organizations is seeking to stop the exclusion of individuals who express moral or religious opposition to the death penalty from serving on capital juries. I Want to Serve is a new organization based in Louisiana that "oppose[s] the government’s intrusion on one’s right to express religious beliefs on capital juries." The group notes that the process of excluding jurors who oppose the death penalty from capital cases--known as death qualification--eliminates a large proportion of the otherwise-qualified jurors. The coalition points to research finding death-qualified juries to be demographically skewed, more prone to conviction, and more likely to make factual errors than non-death-qualified juries. In its statement, the group objects to people being denied a fundamental right of citizenship because of their religious beliefs: "Jury service is a fundamental right of citizens and empowers us to keep a check on state power. . . .The voice of all those who do not think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment are removed from that determination."
On December 19, Dallas District Court Judge Teresa Hawthorne held that Texas’s death penalty was unconstitutional because it could lead to death sentences that were arbitrarily sought and obtained. In ruling in favor of a defense motion, Judge Hawthorne acknowledged that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and other courts have upheld the statute, but judges still have the obligation to review the law based on its current practice. The judge found parts of Texas's statute regarding findings of future dangerousness and the definition of mitigating evidence to be vague or misleading. The prosecution has filed a motion to recuse Judge Hawthorne from the case. In 2010, another Texas judge, Kevin Fine of Harris County, found the same statute unconstitutional because it posed too great a risk of resulting in the execution of an innocent person. Judge Fine withdrew his ruling and began hearings on the issue until ordered to stop by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. UPDATE: Judge Hawthorne was required to recuse herself from the trial, though her constitutional ruling may still stand.
The Chief Justice of California 's Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, recently called for a re-evaluation of the state's death penalty system, saying the system is not working and "not effective." In her first public comments on the issue since she became head of the the state's highest court, Justice Cantil-Sakauye pointed to the present predicament for the state, saying the death penalty system needed "structural change, and we don't have the money to create the kind of change that is needed." The court system was forced to cut $200 million from its budget this year. When asked if she supported capital punishment, the former prosecutor appointed to the court by Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, said, "I don't know if the question is whether you believe in it anymore. I think the greater question is its effectiveness and given the choices we face in California, should we have a merit-based discussion on its effectiveness and costs?" She said the issue "really is up to the voters or to the Legislature," asking whether the criminal justice system can "make better use of our resources." The chief justice's comments echoed those of her predecessor, Chief Justice Ronald M. George, also a former prosecutor, who called the state's capital punishment system "dysfunctional."
Two former Supreme Court Justices in Kentucky and the President of the American Bar Association called for a suspension of executions in the state until its death penalty system is reformed. Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Justices stated, "The list of problematic cases is staggering, and review of the system is deeply troubling. Fairness, impartiality and effectiveness of counsel have been undermined by serious flaws that reveal systemic problems in administration of the death penalty in the commonwealth." Citing findings from a recent study conducted by the ABA, former Justices James Keller (pictured) and Martin Johnstone, along with William Robinson, President of the ABA, noted that since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, 50 of the 78 people who have been sentenced to death have had their sentence or conviction overturned due to misconduct or serious errors that occurred during their trial. The writers said, “In Kentucky, we cannot be certain that our death penalty system is fair and accurate. Our Death Penalty Assessment Team of lawyers, judges, bar leaders and legal experts conducted an exhaustive, two-year review of the death penalty system and identified a host of problems at various stages of the capital process, many of which increase the risk of executing the innocent. The problems affect not only those possibly facing execution, but also victims of crime.” Read full op-ed below.
On December 14, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer (pictured) testified before the state's House Criminal Justice Committee, urging lawmakers to overturn the death penalty law he helped write as a state senator 30 years ago. Justice Pfeifer said, “The death penalty in Ohio has become what I call a death lottery," citing factors such as the location of the crimes and the attitudes of individual county prosecutors as variables affecting whether the death penalty is pursued in a given case. He continued, “It's very difficult to conclude that the death penalty, as it exists today, is anything but a bad gamble. That's really not how a criminal justice system should work.'' As a sitting justice, Pfeifer has continued to issue decisions in death penalty cases and to set execution dates under the law. Of his role, he said, "I have a duty under the law to follow that law. At the same time, we are admonished under the rules that apply to judges that we have a duty to step forward and advocate for changes we think would lead to an improvement in the law.”
In a recent op-ed in Oregon's Statesman Journal, former Texas Governor Mark White (pictured) applauded Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s decision to grant a reprieve to death row inmate Gary Haugen and to halt all executions in the state. Governor White wrote, “I think Kitzhaber's decision is respectable and courageous. In Oregon, as in Texas, it is clearly within the constitutional authority of the governor to grant reprieves and commutations. With that authority comes the responsibility to ensure the state's laws are carried out fairly and within the state and federal constitutions. He concluded that Oregon's death penalty as a system was not passing that test.” Governor White also said that Governor Kitzhaber’s decision now allows time for the state to study the death penalty and address serious concerns about the system. Governor White concluded, “Such a decision should be welcomed by all who value justice, regardless of their personal beliefs about the death penalty.” Read full op-ed below.
The Register Guard (Eugene, Oregon) praised Governor John Kitzhaber's recent announcement halting all executions, calling his conclusion that the "death penalty is morally wrong and unjustly administered" to be "right on both counts." In their editorial, the paper noted that the governor's actions are in line with other developments in the U.S. and internationally: "Kitzhaber’s announcement came as the tide is turning against the death penalty. Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn abolished it in a state that since 1977 had wrongly condemned at least 20 people to death. At least 16 states — and 133 countries — now reject the death penalty." The editors encouraged Oregonians to engage in a "great debate" on the death penalty and seek a solution that "reflects Oregon's values." See the full editorial below.
In a statement released on Nov. 22, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon announced a halt to all executions in the state. "I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values," he wrote. "I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor." His action halts the upcoming execution of Gary Haugen, an inmate who waived his appeals and was scheduled to die on December 6. The governor further stated he acted, "Both because of my own deep personal convictions about capital punishment and also because in practice, Oregon has an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice."
Bob Van Steenburg (pictured), served for 27 years in the military and retired as a United States Army Colonel in 1991. He currently serves as the President of the Board of Directors of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. On Veterans Day, he reflected on how his opposition to the death penalty grew from his commitments as a soldier. He wrote, “A soldier stands for more than just him or herself. A soldier stands for the nation and its citizens. A soldier gives of his or her life to others, and some do that to the fullest extent. A soldier’s life is about others. . . . We Americans are better people than what we demonstrate by our use of capital punishment. We proudly state that our nation was founded on the concepts of life and liberty. Congress has passed and the American people have approved amendments to our Constitution to protect the lives of our citizens. The death penalty stands in direct opposition to these concepts.” He concluded, “My service as a soldier was to protect and defend the nation. My work to end capital punishment is to protect and defend the ideals established with our nation’s founding.” Read full text below.
John Garvey (pictured), president of the Catholic University of America, recently discussed the evolution of Catholic teaching on capital punishment. Garvey said that while early Catholic Church leaders supported the use of the death penalty, the prevailing contemporary teaching on the subject clearly calls for "condemnation of executions." Reflecting on the recent executions of Lawrence Brewer in Texas and Troy Davis in Georgia, Garvey wrote, “The church’s clear contemporary teaching is that Texas and Georgia should do so only if it was necessary to protect their people from further attacks. Given the quality of the state prison systems, it’s hard to make that claim.” Garvey stated that the Church urges Catholics to resist the urge to seek revenge: “The reason isn’t just that we might make a mistake, though we might. The reason is that human life is sacred because it results from the creative action of God. It is not our place to destroy it, though that might satisfy our desire for revenge.” Read full op-ed below.