Category: death penalty

Despite Evidence From Discredited Medical Examiner, Mississippi Man Nears Execution

Jeffrey HavardRadley Balko is one of the few independent journalists in America who will cover egregious cases of injustice the mainstream media ignores.  His email introduction to the shocking case of Jeffrey Havard appears below, followed by Balko’s recent article for the Huffington Post.  Here’s the really scary thing about this story: an innocent man is poised to die and the mainstream press is taking a powder.  AGB
Jeffrey Havard is a Mississippi death row inmate who is nearing execution, despite the fact that his conviction was based almost entirely on the testimony of discredited medical examiner Steven Hayne.
There is a particularly nasty twist in this case. Knowing Hayne’s reputation, during the trial Havard’s attorney had asked for funds to hire his own medical examiner to review Hayne’s work. The court turned him down. Now that his case is in post-conviction, the Mississippi Supreme Court won’t consider affidavits from reputable forensic pathologists (who say Havard should never have been convicted) because, the court says, such statements are evidence that should have been introduced at trial.
Radley Balko (more…)

A house divided still

By Alan Bean

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” pulled in $34 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, third best behind the new Twilight and James Bond movies.  When I saw the film over the weekend, the audience  applauded as the credits rolled–something you don’t see very often.

The film,  loosely based on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, is relentlessly historical.  Lincoln is portrayed as a bucolic Christ figure, but Spielberg stops short of turning The Great Emancipator into a comfortable citizen of the 21st Century.   Constitutional equality applied to Negroes, said Lincoln; that meant abolishing the slave trade in every corner of the Union and little else. (more…)

Will demographic trends doom the GOP?

By Alan Bean

No matter how depressing present political realities may be, Democrats look to the future with confidence.  By mid-century, they say, America will be a majority-minority nation and that can only help the left. 

Jamelle Bouie questions this reasoning on two counts: Republicans could win back the most prosperous sector of the Latino community by returning to the moderate immigration policies of George W. Bush; and, as minorities are absorbed into the affluent mainstream, their resistance to conservative politics will diminish.

In other words, future trends can never be predicted with confidence, especially when we’re gazing 37 years down the road. 

This “the future is ours” rhetoric should make genuine reformers cringe.  We can’t get locked into the culture war categories of the present hour.  Between 1950 and 1970, Democrats and Republicans switched sides on civil rights.  It is hard to believe that the Republican Party on display during the primary election season could move to the left on anything; but stranger things have happened in American politics.  If public sentiment shifts (as it always does) politicians will shift along with it. Reformers should be trying to nudge both parties in the direction of compassion and common sense, even when it feels silly.  Life is full of surprises.

The worst thing that could happen would be for Democrats to eschew the hard work of rethinking the entire progressive narrative because “we are bound to start winning sooner or later”.  Democrats have been on the wrong side of plenty of issues in recent memory (think the war on drugs, mass incarceration and the deregulation of the financial sector), and the blue team will continue to get things wrong if they misread the writing on the wall. 

The tepid politics of triangulation has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Nothing in public life is inevitable.  Change is always hard work.  Justice demands courage.  Patience is a virtue; complacency is not.

The Democrats’ Demographic Dreams

Jamelle Bouie

June 14, 2012

If Democrats agree on anything, it’s that they will eventually be on the winning side. The white Americans who tend to vote Republican are shrinking as a percentage of the population while the number of those who lean Democratic—African Americans and other minorities—is rapidly growing. Slightly more than half of American infants are now nonwhite. By 2050, the U.S. population is expected to increase by 117 million people, and the vast majority—82 percent of the 117 million—will be immigrants or the children of immigrants. In a little more than 30 years, the U.S. will be a “majority-minority” country. By 2050, white Americans will no longer be a solid majority but the largest plurality, at 46 percent. African Americans will drop to 12 percent, while Asian Americans will make up 8 percent of the population. The number of Latinos will rise to nearly a third of all Americans. (more…)

If DA Watkins opposes the death penalty why does he seek death?

By Alan Bean

Dallas County DA Craig Watkins is morally opposed to the death penalty, yet he continues to ask juries to sentence defendants to death.  Professor Rick Halperin wants to know why.

Technically, the answer is simple.  Prosecutors are public servants, politicians really, and are thus accountable to the wishes of the constituency they represent.  A solid majority of Dallas County residents favors capital punishment, so Craig Watkins bows to their preferences.

Prosecutors who personally oppose the war on drugs, by the same reasoning, continue to indict drug dealers because it’s the law.  Prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys, the theory goes, are obligated to enforce rules created by others.

Lawyers can do things the rest of us cannot.  We cannot prosecute or defend suspected criminals, for instance, nor can we preside at trial–those roles have been delegated to particular legal professionals.  But we must also realize that legal professionals are shackled to the rules of their profession in ways that can be quite limiting.  This may be necessary, but it minimizes their ability to argue that the emperor has no clothes.  According to legal theory, the emperor is fully clothed by definition. 

It is generally assumed that people advocating for criminal justice reform should be trained attorneys, and many aspects of advocacy work do require legal expertise.  But we also need non lawyers like Rick Halperin in the game. 

In her wildly successful The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Michelle Alexander underscores the need for grassroots advocacy.

Not surprisingly, as civil rights advocates converted a grassroots movement into a legal campaign, and civil rights leaders became political insiders, many civil rights organizations became top-heavy with lawyers.  This development enhanced their ability to wage legal battles but impeded their ability to acknowledge or respond to the emergence of a new caste system.  Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve—i.e., problems that can be solved through litigation.  The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem. (p. 214)

The argument that prosecutors opposed to the death penalty must nonetheless ask juries for death sentences is driven by Alice in Wonderland logic.  Thanks to Dr. Halperin for pointing that out.  Thanks also to the wonderful Dallas South Blog for printing this story(more…)

Texas executes wrong man

In 1989, Carlos DeLuna was executed for the killing of a gas station attendant in Corpus Christi, TX.  His conviction rested solely on eyewitness testimony.  Over twenty years after his execution, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review has published a report stating that DeLuna was not the murderer.  

In reality, the murderer was most likely another Carlos, Carlos Hernandez.  Hernandez was also at the scene of the crime, but fled in the other direction while police detained DeLuna.  Despite DeLuna’s pleas of innocence and the prosecution’s lack of reliable evidence, DeLuna was found guilty of murder. And an innocent man was executed.

Sadly, this is just another chilling tale of our flawed justice system.  MWN

Wrong man was executed in Texas, probe says

By Chantal Valery

He was the spitting image of the killer, had the same first name and was near the scene of the crime at the fateful hour: Carlos DeLunapaid the ultimate price and was executed in place of someone else in Texas in 1989, a report out Tuesday found.

Even “all the relatives of both Carloses mistook them,” and DeLuna was sentenced to death and executed based only on eyewitness accounts despite a range of signs he was not a guilty man, said law professor James Liebman.

Liebman and five of his students at Columbia School of Law spent almost five years poring over details of a case that he says is “emblematic” of legal system failure.

DeLuna, 27, was put to death after “a very incomplete investigation. No question that the investigation is a failure,” Liebman said. (more…)

Carter: it’s time to end the death penalty

By Alan Bean

The Associated Baptist Press is an excellent compendium of Baptist views from every conceivable point on the political and theological spectrum.  Jimmy Carter has been called the greatest living former president, and I agree with that assessment.  Most retired politicians adopt bland, predictable positions on controversial issues, I suspect for fear of ruining their precious legacies.  Carter calls ’em as he sees ’em, even when (as with the Palestinian issue) his views run counter to popular opinion.  In this piece he provides a compact and compelling version of the case against capital punishment. 

(ABP) — For many reasons, it is time for Georgia and other states to abolish the death penalty. A recent poll showed that 61 percent of Americans would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder.

Also, just 1 percent of police chiefs think that expanding the death penalty would reduce violent crime. This change in public opinion is steadily restricting capital punishment, both in state legislatures and in the federal courts.

As Georgia’s chief executive, I competed with other governors to reduce our prison populations. We classified all new inmates to prepare them for a productive time in prison, followed by carefully monitored early-release and work-release programs. We recruited volunteers from service clubs who acted as probation officers and “adopted” one prospective parolee for whom they found a job when parole was granted. At that time, in the 1970s, only one in 1,000 Americans was in prison.

Our nation’s focus is now on punishment, not rehabilitation. Although violent crimes have not increased, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 7.43 per 1,000 adults imprisoned at the end of 2010. Our country is almost alone in our fascination with the death penalty. Ninety percent of all executions are carried out in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

One argument for the death penalty is that it is a strong deterrent to murder and other violent crimes. In fact, evidence shows just the opposite. The homicide rate is at least five times greater in the United States than in any Western European country, all without the death penalty.

Southern states carry out more than 80 percent of the executions but have a higher murder rate than any other region. Texas has by far the most executions, but its homicide rate is twice that of Wisconsin, the first state to abolish the death penalty. Look at similar adjacent states: There are more capital crimes in South Dakota, Connecticut and Virginia (with death sentences) than neighboring North Dakota, Massachusetts and West Virginia (without death penalties).

Furthermore, there has never been any evidence that the death penalty reduces capital crimes or that crimes increased when executions stopped. Tragic mistakes are prevalent. DNA testing and other factors have caused 138 death sentences to be reversed since I left the governor’s office.

The cost for prosecuting executed criminals is astronomical. Since 1973, California has spent roughly $4 billion in capital cases leading to only 13 executions, amounting to about $307 million each.

Some devout Christians are among the most fervent advocates of the death penalty, contradicting Jesus Christ and misinterpreting Holy Scriptures and numerous examples of mercy. We remember God’s forgiveness of Cain, who killed Abel, and the adulterer King David, who had Bathsheba’s husband killed. Jesus forgave an adulterous woman sentenced to be stoned to death and explained away the “eye for an eye” scripture.

There is a stark difference between Protestant and Catholic believers. Many Protestant leaders are in the forefront of demanding ultimate punishment. Official Catholic policy condemns the death penalty.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty is extreme bias against the poor, minorities or those with diminished mental capacity. Although homicide victims are six times more likely to be black rather than white, 77 percent of death penalty cases involve white victims. Also, it is hard to imagine a rich white person going to the death chamber after being defended by expensive lawyers. This demonstrates a higher value placed on the lives of white Americans.

It is clear that there are overwhelming ethical, financial, and religious reasons to abolish the death penalty.

Jimmy Carter was the 39th president and is founder of not-for-profit Carter Center in Atlanta, advancing peace and health worldwide.

Connecticut abolishes the death penalty, but does it matter?

By Alan Bean

Yesterday Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty.  That’s good news.  But not great news. 

As this helpful article in the New York Times points out: “the death penalty is largely being abolished where it is not being imposed and remains largely untouched where it is.  And the death penalty map is beginning to resemble the familiar red state-blue state one.”

Specifically, “The number of executions nationally dropped to 43 last year from 98 in 1998. Since executions resumed in 1976 after being halted by the Supreme Court, there have been 1,060 in the South, 150 in the Midwest, 75 in the West and 4 in the Northeast.”

If you want to know if a person is likely to pull the blue or red lever at election time, ask for an opinion on the death penalty.  It’s as good a single issue indicator as you are likely to find.

On the other hand, support for the death penalty is falling, largely, I would argue, because the homicide rate has been dropping since 1993.  When support for the death penalty briefly dipped below 50% in the early 1960s, the homicide rate was low by historical standards.  Between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s, homicide rates exploded as did support for the death penalty. 

As violent crime recedes, support for the ultimate penalty is softening.  There were 24,530 murders in America in 1993; in 2010 there were only 14,748, just a few more than in 1969 when the US population was considerably smaller.  In 1963, as support for the death penalty dipped below 50%, the nation saw only 8,640 murders. 

Unfortunately, the death penalty is so popular in the South that we are unlikely to see abolition anytime soon.  Although southern states are executing fewer people since the advent of life without parole laws, our prisons are filling up with old men who have lived most of their lives in prison and will die there.  A growing number of lifers are still in their teens.  Abolishing the death penalty is a laudable goal; but capital punishment isn’t the only symptom of a punitive consensus that has controlled American public policy for half a century.

The popularity of capital punishment in the states of the old Confederacy suggests there is more in play here than murder rates.  In fact, if you take a map highlighting the rate of lynching during the Jim Crow era and superimpose it over a map showing the frequency of executions in the United States, the correspondence is almost exact.  States that lynched a lot of people are now executing a lot of people.  Is this merely a coincidence?  Alas, it is not.

In Connecticut Vote, Death Penalty Critics Don’t See Major Shift


There were references to being a “tipping point” and reflecting a “paradigm shift” in the use of capital punishment when the State House voted this week to make Connecticut the 17th state — the 5th in five years — to eliminate the death penalty in future prosecutions.

“It’s definitely part of a larger trend, certainly with other states including New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois abolishing executions through similar processes, and with a decline in executions around the country,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national research group critical of the death penalty, said Thursday. “There’s less public support. So the trends are in the same direction.”

But even staunch death penalty opponents acknowledge that the vote was not indicative of a nationwide about-face. Rather, it was a reflection of capital punishment’s erosion in the Northeast, a trend toward fewer executions nationally and the intensification of the death penalty’s status as a phenomenon overwhelmingly rooted in the South.

The number of executions nationally dropped to 43 last year from 98 in 1998. Since executions resumed in 1976 after being halted by the Supreme Court, there have been 1,060 in the South, 150 in the Midwest, 75 in the West and 4 in the Northeast.

During that time, Connecticut had one execution, Michael Bruce Ross, a serial killer who was put to death in 2005.

So the death penalty is largely being abolished where it is not being imposed and remains largely untouched where it is. And the death penalty map is beginning to resemble the familiar red state-blue state one.

Still, the nine hours of impassioned debate in the Connecticut House on Wednesday reflected how deeply the issues surrounding capital punishment resonate.

“I am for the Connecticut death penalty because it is retribution which accomplishes justice,” the House minority leader, Lawrence Cafero Jr., a Republican from Norwalk, said Wednesday. “I am not for the Connecticut death penalty because it accomplishes revenge.”

The Connecticut vote and debate, particularly in the wake of the Petit family home invasion and murders in Cheshire, reflected a cautious political bargain and a public apparently reluctant to give up the death penalty completely. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that 62 percent of Connecticut residents thought repeal was “a bad idea.”

The bill, which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, said he would sign, does not apply to the 11 men now on death row, including the two Cheshire killers. Critics of the legislation, who are mostly Republican, called it hypocritical to outlaw capital punishment in the future while keeping it intact for those already sentenced.

“You either support the death penalty and taking somebody’s life or you don’t,” said Representative Themis Klarides, a Republican from Woodbridge. “You can’t support it for these guys, but not for these guys.”

Capital punishment is still an option in federal prosecutions, including in terrorism-related murder cases. Connecticut Republicans tried unsuccessfully on Wednesday to preserve the death penalty for terrorism cases prosecuted in state court, which tend to be less serious than those handled in federal court.

Death penalty opponents say Maryland could be the next state to repeal capital punishment. Kansas and Montana are among the states discussing it. California is likely to have a public referendum in November that will almost surely become the nation’s most high-profile debate over capital punishment.

The long-term strategy of death penalty opponents is to get more than half the states to repeal it and then file a challenge to the United States Supreme Court based on the Constitution’s prescriptions against “cruel and unusual punishment,” the second half of that dependent on only a minority of states employing it.

Still, 33 states and the federal government will maintain capital punishment after Connecticut’s abolition, and many of those are not receptive to repeal. Death penalty opponents also acknowledge that if the Supreme Court remains conservative, it is unlikely to embrace that argument.

Absent an improbable ban by the Supreme Court, death penalty opponents say it is hard to imagine anytime soon the end of capital punishment where it is most likely to be used.

“Nobody, not even the most pathological optimist, is saying abolition is right around the corner in any of the states of the old Confederacy,” said Denny LeBoeuf, the director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.

Bryan Stevenson on our “Stunning Silence” about Injustice

By Lisa D’Souza

If you care about justice in America, please take 24 minutes to listen to Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk

In less than half an hour, Mr. Stevenson eloquently and compellingly discusses the problem of mass incarceration, its impact on poor communities of color, and our nation’s resistance to honestly examining our history and our present. 

He offers painful data and asks hard questions.  Why are we comfortable with a justice system in which “wealth not culpability shapes outcomes.” 

Why are we the only country in the world in which children as young as 13 can be sentenced to live their natural lives and die in prison?  How have we allowed the disenfranchisement of vast numbers of men of color?

We allow it because we don’t think this is “our problem.”  Mr. Stevenson reminds us that none of us is free until all of us are free and that our society will be judged by our treatment of the marginalized.  He asks us to start talking about these justice issues and to commit ourselves to truth and reconciliation.

There is no time like the present.  Will you commit to thinking and talking about injustice today?  I will.

The source of American punitiveness

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Since the 1970s, the prison population in the U.S. has increased by 700%. Consequently, there are now over 2.3 million people behind bars. Friends of Justice believes that this shift toward mass incarceration was driven by a punitive public consensus. This punitiveness resulted in tough-on-crime policies that promote harsh punishment over rehabilitation and leave prisoners locked up and left out.

There are many theories that attempt to explain why the U.S. shifted toward punitive criminal justice policies over the last 40 years. A recent study by Unnever and Cullen (2010) explores the social sources of punitiveness among Americans by examining the efficacy of three prominent theories: the escalating crime-distrust model, the moral decline model, and the racial animus model.

The escalating crime-distrust model suggests that punitiveness is driven by the combination of an individual’s fear that crime is increasing, belief that his or her safety is at risk, and distrust in the government’s ability to protect him or her from crime. This theory also argues that an individual’s belief that courts put the rights of offenders over the rights of victims further contributes to a punitive attitude toward crime. The moral decline model suggests that punitive attitudes stem from an individual’s belief that society is in a state of moral decay. Therefore, only harsh policies toward crime will restore social cohesion. The racial-animus model argues that racial and ethnic hostility and intolerance is tied to punitiveness in the criminal justice system:

 “A sizable proportion of the American public perceives the crime problem through a racial lens that results in an association of crime with African Americans, especially Black men. This lens, mostly unique to Whites and especially to those who are racist, colors their view of crime. For these Americans, when they think about crime, the picture in their head illuminates a young, angry, Black, inner-city male who offends with little remorse. For them, this offender is the “superpredator” Black male.” (more…)