Author: MWN

The hardest cases: When children die, justice can be elusive

Ernie Lopez

The following story, produced in collaboration with PBS “Frontline” and NPR, is based on the investigations of dozens of cases in which flimsy evidence was used to wrongfully accuse and convict individuals in cases where children were killed. Child death cases are never easy. Often, the desire to “get to the bottom of the case” and obtain justice for the victim can cloud the judgement of those involved in researching and investigating the case. The stories of the individuals below highlight the need for more thorough investigations and stricter regulations around the use of forensic pathology to ensure a fair and just criminal justice system. MW

The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive

by A.C. Thompson and Chisun Lee, ProPublica, and Joe Shapiro and Sandra Bartlett, NPR

Her name was Isis Charm Vas and at 6 months old she was a slight child — fifth percentile in height and weight.

When the ambulance sped her to Northwest Texas Hospital on a Saturday morning in October 2000, doctors and nurses feared that someone had done something awful to her delicate little body.

A constellation of bruises stretched across her pale skin. CT scans showed blood pooling on her brain and swelling. Her vagina was bleeding, as well. The damage was so severe that her body’s vital organs were shutting down.

Less than 24 hours later, Isis died.

An autopsy bolstered the initial suspicions that she’d been abused. Dr. Joni McClain, a forensic pathologist, ruled Isis’ death a homicide and said the baby had been sexually violated. McClain would later describe it as a “classic” case of blunt force trauma, the type of damage often done by a beating.

The police investigation that followed was constructed almost entirely from medical evidence. In the end, prosecutors indicted one of the child’s babysitters: Ernie Lopez.

Today, Lopez is serving a 60-year prison term for sexual assault and is still facing capital murder charges.

But in the years since Lopez was sent to the penitentiary, a growing body of evidence has emerged suggesting that McClain and the hospital staffers were wrong about what happened to Isis — and that her death was not the result of a criminal attack. (more…)

Tougher sentencing laws = More guilty pleas

Tougher sentencing laws over the last several decades have resulted in fewer criminal cases going to trial. Instead, defendants are choosing plea bargains, rather than going to court and facing the possibility of harsher, lengthier sentences. The New York Times article below gives a good overview of the sentencing shift since the 1980s and how this shift gives “new leverage to prosecutors.” MW

Sentencing Shift Gives New Leverage to Prosecutors

By  Jr.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After decades of new laws to toughen sentencing for criminals, prosecutors have gained greater leverage to extract guilty pleas from defendants and reduce the number of cases that go to trial, often by using the threat of more serious charges with mandatory sentences or other harsher penalties.

Some experts say the process has become coercive in many state and federal jurisdictions, forcing defendants to weigh their options based on the relative risks of facing a judge and jury rather

than simple matters of guilt or innocence. In effect, prosecutors are giving defendants more reasons to avoid having their day in court.

“We now have an incredible concentration of power in the hands of prosecutors,” said Richard E. Myers II, a former assistant United States attorney who is now an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina. He said that so much influence now resides with prosecutors that “in the wrong hands, the criminal justice system can be held hostage.”

One crucial, if unheralded, effect of this shift is now coming into sharper view, according to academics who study the issue. Growing prosecutorial power is a significant reason that the percentage of felony cases that go to trial has dropped sharply in many places.

Plea bargains have been common for more than a century, but lately they have begun to put the trial system out of business in some courtrooms. By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts. (more…)

Michelle Alexander on the execution of Troy Davis

Take a moment to check out this video of an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” and hear her response to the recent execution of Troy Davis. MW

“What I hope is that the passion and the energy and momentum that was generated to save Troy’s life…won’t just fade away, won’t be one of these episodic spurts that we’ve seen in the past, but will actually signal a new phase in the movement to end the death penalty. [I hope] that we’ll be able to look back and see Troy Davis’ death as the day when the movement to end the death penalty and the movement to end mass incarceration gained new steam.” -Michelle Alexander

Troy Davis and the growing case against eyewitness ID

by Melanie Wilmoth

The case against Troy Davis hinged on the eyewitness testimony of several individuals who claimed that Davis shot police officer Mark MacPhail. Many began to have serious doubts about Davis’ guilt, however, after several witnesses recanted their original testimony. Despite witness recantations, hundreds of thousands of petitions, and international protests against Troy’s execution, the state of Georgia remained steadfast in its belief that Davis was guilty and, ultimately, executed him.

In a recent Associated Press article, Michael Tarm and Eric Tucker highlight how the controversy around Troy Davis’ execution has sparked debate about the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.

Davis’ execution came at a time in which the reliability of eyewitness identifications was increasingly questioned. Studies on the fallibility of human memory as well as a host of recent DNA exonerations have contributed to the doubt surrounding the accuracy of eyewitness ID, and increased concerns that these identifications may lead to wrongful convictions.

Just last month, we reported that the New Jersey Supreme Court decided to reform rules around eyewitness ID, requiring more rigorous evaluations of eyewitness identifications and making it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness testimony. Several other states have recently attempted to reduce the reliance on eyewitness identification as well.

As Tarm and Tucker point out, the doubt surrounding Davis’ conviction and subsequent execution will likely “fuel the eyewitness ID debate” and will hopefully lead to more sound rules and regulations regarding the use of eyewitness identification. Check out what they have to say in their article below.

You may also want to check out a related article published by Time Magazine.

Troy Davis execution fuels eyewitness ID debate

(AP)  SAVANNAH, Ga. — When Georgia executed Troy Davis last week, it brushed aside international protests that too many witnesses had recanted trial testimony that he was the gunman who killed a police officer in 1989.

The issue raised in Davis’s case, however, is getting harder to ignore. With scientific studies showing the human memory can be surprisingly faulty, the once-damning weight of eyewitness testimony has come under question in courts and state legislatures. (more…)

Elizabeth Warren on class warfare

by Melanie Wilmoth 

A recent video of U.S. Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren, is circulating the internet with fervor. After watching the video, it’s easy to see why it’s such a hit. The video, a clip of one of Warren’s “Talking Tours” through Massachusetts, shows her discussing the debt crisis and her take on fair taxation. Specifically, she challenges the Republican claim that taxing the wealthy is “class warfare:”

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

As Americans, we pride ourselves in our individualism, but Warren has a point: No one becomes successful in isolation. Warren’s talk of the underlying “social contract” and her sense of shared responsibility makes for fresh, exciting political discourse, and I am looking forward to hearing more from her in the near future.

Check out the clip of Warren’s speech below.

Troy Davis clemency denied: Take action now!

Despite growing doubts in the case against Troy Davis, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles decided early Tuesday morning to deny clemency to Mr. Davis. His execution is set for tomorrow, September 21, at 7:00pm.

Both Amnesty International and the NAACP are calling on individuals to contact District Attorney Larry Chisolm and ask him to petition the Judge to withdraw the death warrant against Troy. Please consider speaking out against this injustice and signing both the Amnesty International petition and the NAACP petition. This is Troy’s last hope.

Amnesty International is also organizing a Day of Protest (today) and a Day of Vigil (tomorrow) in support of Troy. See the message below from Laura Moye of Amnesty International for more details. MW

BREAKING: The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denies clemency to Troy Davis

It is with a very heavy heart and a deep sense of outrage that I let you know that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles voted to deny clemency to Troy Davis.

This means that very little is standing in the way of the state of Georgia executing a potentially innocent man this Wednesday, September 21 at 7pm.

The actions of the Board are astounding in the face of so much doubt in the case against Troy Davis. However, we are not prepared to accept the decision and let anyone with the power to stop the execution off the hook.

Join us in calling on the Board to reconsider its decision, and on the Chatham County (Savannah) District Attorney Larry Chisolm to do the right thing. They have until the final moments before Troy’s scheduled execution to put the brakes on this runaway justice system.

We have seen an unprecedented level of support from our members, coalition partners and all sorts of concerned individuals across the political spectrum.

I was blown away as I carried one of the many boxes containing your petition signatures up to the Parole Board office last Thursday. Close to a million signatures have been collected from the many organizations working with us. I looked back as we were marching down Auburn Avenue in Atlanta Friday night and I could not see an end to the crowd. About 3,500 people came out!

The movement here is very alive. It is electric. And I have no doubt that we will raise the volume together against what could be an unthinkable injustice.

Join your voices with us – we will not allow Troy Davis to be executed, not in our names! Troy Davis and his family have counted on us for many years now and we will not let them down. Please take action – human rights and a human life are on the line. Please contact Georgia’s District Attorney and urge him to stop the execution of Troy Davis.

Make the state of Georgia hear you! Tell them that executing Troy Davis will only deepen the cycle of violence and injustice.

In Solidarity,
Laura Moye
Director, Death Penalty Abolition Campaign
Amnesty International USA

P.S. We’ll be organizing a Day of Protest today to express our outrage at the recent decision to deny Troy Davis clemency. And on Wednesday (Sept. 21), we’re calling for a Day of Vigil on Troy’s impending execution date. If you are able to organize locally for either of these events, please tell us about your plans.

Hate-crime victim’s family opposes death penalty

By Melanie Wilmoth

The family of James Craig Anderson, a Black man from Mississippi who was the victim of a hate crime this summer, is requesting that prosecutors do not seek the death penalty for those responsible for James’ murder.

As CNN reports, a letter Mr. Anderson’s family sent to Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith reads:

“We ask that you not seek the death penalty for anyone involved in James’ murder. Our opposition to the death penalty is deeply rooted in our religious faith, a faith that was central in James’ life as well. We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James’ killers will not help to balance the scales, but sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment. Those responsible for James’ death not only ended the life of a talented and wonderful man, they also caused our family unspeakable pain and grief, but our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another.”

In response, DA Smith stated, “It’s most likely that we will honor the family’s wishes, but we will see whether or not things will change over the course of this proceeding.”

Family of alleged hate-killing victim opposes death penalty in case

By Drew Griffin and Scott Bronstein

Jackson, Mississippi (CNN) — The family of an African-American man who died after allegedly being beaten by a group of white teens and run over by a truck is asking state and federal officials not to seek the death penalty in the case.

Relatives of James Craig Anderson, who died shortly after receiving his injuries on June 26, sent a letter with their request to the prosecutor in the case, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith. (more…)

Congress members seek clemency for Troy Davis

by Melanie Wilmoth

In the wake of the announcement that Troy Davis’ execution is scheduled for September 21, several US Congress members are seeking clemency for Mr. Davis.

Fifty-one Congress members, all Democrats, have signed a letter addressed to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles stating that “considerable doubts as to Troy Davis’ guilt remain.”

The evidence against Mr. Davis is questionable at best. As Congress members point out:

“Several witnesses testified at the evidentiary hearing that they had been coerced into making statements implicating Troy Davis at trial. At the hearing, one witness testified for the first time that he saw another suspect in the case commit the crime. The credibility of various witnesses was challenged by the state of Georgia, and the judge in that case agreed. Many of these same witnesses, whose credibility is now questioned, were essential to obtaining Troy Davis’ original conviction.”

Despite claims of coercion, questions about witness credibility, and 7 of 9 witnesses recanting their testimony, Troy Davis is still considered guilty and set to be executed.

Congress members are not the only people speaking out against this injustice. Other world leaders, artists, and public figures have joined the fight as well.

John Lewis, Hank Johnson, David Scott, Sanford Bishop seek clemency for Troy Davis

By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

The Georgia members of Congress have asked the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency for Troy Davis, who is scheduled to face execution next week the 1989 killing of off-duty Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

Hank Johnson of Decatur, John Lewis and David Scott of Atlanta, and Sanford Bishop of Albany, all Democrats, put their signatures to the letter that can be read here. A total of four dozen members of Congress signed. (more…)

International Day of Solidarity for Troy Davis

See below for information on the International Day of Solidarity for Troy Davis. Thanks to Laura Moye of Amnesty International USA for providing this information. MW

Stand Strong, Stand Together for Troy Davis this Friday, September 16!

This Friday, September 16, is the International Day of Solidarity for Troy Davis.

We need you there. Troy needs you there.

We chose this date because the following Monday, the Georgia Board of Pardons & Paroles will hold Troy’s final clemency hearing – our final chance to prevent Troy Davis from being executed.

On Friday, September 16th we need everyone pouring out onto the streets to demand justice for Troy Davis. We want to see pictures, local news stories, Facebook postsvideosblogs, tweets and re-tweets on Twitter and any other visible signs of solidarity for Troy.

To make the biggest impact, we’ll need to join together.

If you know of public events happening in your U.S. city, then please add them to our public listing! Or to find a public Troy Davis Solidarity event taking place in your city, check back at our event listing that will be available in the next few days!

Here’s how to add a Troy Davis solidarity event to our public listing:

  1. Visit our Submit Your Event page
  2. Be sure to add a descriptive title for your event that includes “Troy Davis Event”
  3. In the Description, please include any details about your event including location, type of event (film screening, rally, vigil, etc) and any special information such as parking.

The outpouring of support you’ve shown for Troy Davis so far has been phenomenal – more than 100,000 of you have signed the petition for clemency and nearly 500 events have popped up in small towns and big cities alike all over the United States. Supporters from countries in the U.K., France, Denmark, Brazil, Hong Kong and Australia have also joined in to lend their voices.

The growing range of scholars, world leaders and prominent figures who are also demanding justice – including former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, John Legend, R.E.M., Russell Simmons, Mia Farrow, Indigo Girls, a former Governor of Texas and a former Member of Congress from Georgia – is simply awe-inspiring.

Momentum is building, but the biggest hurdle lies ahead.

Thank you for standing with Troy Davis!

Laura Moye
Director, Death Penalty Abolition Campaign
Amnesty International USA

Rick Perry’s Texas: 234 executions and counting

by Melanie Wilmoth

Under Governor Rick Perry’s leadership, the state of Texas has executed a shocking number of individuals (234 to be exact). When this fact was mentioned at the GOP debate on Wednesday evening, it was welcomed with cheerful applause.

Perry went on to defend his record of executions stating:

“Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.”

Although the death penalty was mentioned in the debate, no meaningful discussion occurred. For example, nothing was said about the moral issues surrounding capital punishment. Nor was there mention of the fact that the death penalty disproportionately affects poor people of color, or that research suggests that capital punishment does little (if anything) to deter crime. Moreover, there was no talk of the number of individuals who are wrongfully convicted and even wrongfully executed by the dysfunctional Texas justice system. (more…)