Rushing To Judgment

Kharey Wise was wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a female jogger in Central Park in 1989 and spent 15 years in prison. He was released when the real assailant confessed to the crime (Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images).

Kharey Wise was wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a female jogger in Central Park in 1989 and spent 15 years in prison. He was released when the real assailant confessed to the crime (Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images).

For many who remember the terrible crime, the huge outcry and the media circus around the 1989 “Central Park Jogger” case, which was BIG national news, it may have come as a surprise to learn that all 5 of the teenagers convicted were in fact innocent.

But it probably shouldn’t have.

The film The Central Park Five, recently premiered on PBS, offers an important cautionary tale about how a rush to judgment, fueled by all-in media coverage of a particularly heinous crime, increases the chances that criminal justice officials will make critical mistakes, or engage in deliberate misconduct. The Reggie Clemons case, tainted by allegations of police abuse during the investigation and prosecutorial misconduct during the trial, is a reminder that a process compromised in this way can result in a death sentence.

At the other end of the spectrum, a rush to judgment can occur when there is a callous indifference on the part of authorities toward a crime they may perceive as less important because it was committed in a marginalized community. That’s what seems to have happened in the Carlos De Luna case, where an almost certainly innocent man was put to death for a crime another man named Carlos probably committed.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

SCOTUS, It’s Time for Marriage Equality

Love is a (human) right, not a wrong and protecting the rights of same-sex couples in the U.S. is a step towards recognizing that fact (Photo Credit: Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images).

Love is a (human) right, not a wrong and protecting the rights of same-sex couples in the U.S. is a step towards recognizing that fact (Photo Credit: Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images).

By Emily McGranachan, Member of Amnesty International USA’s LGBT Human Rights Coordinating Group

Today the Supreme Court of the United States began hearing arguments on two pivotal cases involving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. The focus of today’s hearing was on California’s Proposition 8, which wrote discrimination into the California Constitution by defining marriage in the state as between one man and one woman. The state constitutional amendment has been found unconstitutional by a federal appeals courts and supporters of marriage equality hope it will be struck down entirely.

Tomorrow the court hears arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which limits federal recognition of marriage to heterosexual couples. There is a great deal in the news about both cases and what they could mean for LGBT rights. The decisions made by the Supreme Court will have real impacts on individuals, children, and families, regardless of their sexual orientation.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Death Penalty In 2012: Seven Significant Signs

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature's  vote to abolish the death penalty.

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty.

By this time at the end of the year, states have generally stopped killing their prisoners. This break from executions is a good thing, and perhaps this year it will give us a chance to reflect on the larger question of our violent culture, and on how perhaps we can start focusing on preventing terrible crimes rather than simply responding with more violence.

The end of the year is also a time for looking back. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the Death Penalty Information Center releases its year-end report, which provides a lot of good data. This year’s version reveals the geographically arbitrary (and increasingly isolated) nature of capital punishment in the U.S. In 2012, death sentences and executions maintained their historically low levels, and only nine states actually carried out an execution.  In fact, the majority of U.S. states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Just four states were responsible for around three-fourths of the country’s executions, and four states issued about two thirds of U.S. death sentences.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

California Death Penalty Hangs On (Barely)

Witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville,Ohio

CAROLINE GROUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

By a narrow 52.7%-47.3% margin, California voters have chosen to retain their state’s death penalty.  This represents a 19% decline in support for capital punishment from the 1978 referendum that enacted the current death penalty law. At that time 71% voted for the death penalty.

The need to end the killing of prisoners and redirect resources in a more useful way (like investigating the 46% of murders that go unsolved in California each year) brought together a wide array of advocates, from human rights and civil liberties groups like Amnesty International and the ACLU, to murder victim family members, to death row exonerees, to a former warden of San Quentin and former top proponents of the 1978 ballot initiative.

As Rose Seward, who survived an attack from a serial killer who killed 5 other women, wrote just two days before the vote: “How can we say with credibility that murder is abhorrent, an abomination, and then turn around and commit the act ourselves?

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Can Election Day Votes Bring Human Rights To The USA?

voting booth

In Maryland and California, it is extremely important that those of us who want to establish a real culture of human rights here in the U.S. get out and vote. © AFP/GettyImages

In 1941, FDR enunciated the Four Freedoms, signalling U.S. commitment to basic rights for all. In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt led the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational document for human rights in the modern world. But despite these hopeful beginnings more than half a century ago, a culture of respect for human rights has not taken root here in the USA. The seeds were planted, but the soil has not been fertile.

From torture and executions to discrimination in things like education, or even marriage, the U.S., at the federal and state level, often engages in policies that are willfully contrary to human rights norms accepted (if not always practiced) in much of the rest of the world.

That’s why, in Maryland and California, it is extremely important that those of us who want to establish a real culture of human rights here in the U.S. get out and vote.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

The Facts About Solitary Confinement in California Prisons [INFOGRAPHIC]

Our new report on solitary confinement shows how the United States has shamefully become a world leader in the practice of holding people in isolation for prolonged periods — as much as 20 years or more.  More than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in high security isolation units known as “Security Housing Units.” Help us stop this practice by taking action.
SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Alleged Murderer of Kashmir Human Rights Lawyer Kills Family in California

Retired Indian Army Major Avtar Singh, wanted for the murder of human rights activist Jalil Andrabi, shot and killed at least three members of his family before turning the gun on himself outside of Fresno, California on June 9th.

He was arrested in 2011 for alleged domestic violence incident where he was accused of choking of wife. He was then released from custody mainly because the Indian government could not be bothered to seek his extradition despite being wanted for murder charges in Jammu and Kashmir.

The head of the Kashmir Commission of Jurists, Jalil Andrabi was killed at the height of protests in Kashmir against Indian rule in the disputed region. Andrabi disappeared in March 1996 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir. His body was recovered 19 days later in the Jhelum River. He had been shot in the head, and his eyes were gouged out.

A police investigation blamed Maj. Singh and his men for that killing and also accused Maj. Singh of involvement in the killings of six other Kashmiri men.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

How Bad Is The U.S. Wrongful Conviction Problem?

richard miles exonorated

Richard Miles was convicted of murder in Dallas in 1996 and released in 2009 after it was discovered prosecutors hid reports implicating other suspects. (Image via texasobserver.org)

Our criminal justice system is less than perfect, a non-controversial fact which is one of the reasons we oppose the use of an absolute and irreversible punishment like execution.

The new National Registry of Exonerations, produced by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools, provides a glimpse of just how imperfect.  It lists almost 900 known exonerations since 1989.  Around 100 of those listed had been sent to death row; the remainder had been sent to prison for everything from homicide to white collar crimes.

The Registry’s accompanying report (p. 84, Table 18), documents another 1,170 exonerations from a group of major law enforcement scandals, mostly involving drug crimes.

This snapshot of known exonerations is revealing.  According to the report summary, the chief causes of the wrongful convictions were faulty or perjured witness testimony and official misconduct, though almost a quarter involved bad forensic science, and 16% of those exonerated had initially falsely confessed.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Connecticut Death Penalty Abolished! (California Next?)

death penalty abolished in connecticut

With his signature, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law the repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty, making his state the 17th, and the 5th in the last 5 years, to do away with capital punishment.  The law is not retroactive, so 11 men remain on Connecticut’s death row.

It is surely a sign of progress for the death penalty abolition movement that such a success could occur in the midst of contentious and escalating election year politics.  Previous legislative repeal victories have occurred during the more sedate odd-numbered years (New Jersey, 2007; New Mexico, 2009, Illinois, 2011).

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

2011: Five Good Signs For Death Penalty Abolition in the US

stop the execution death penalty protesters

© Scott Langley

Given the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street”, Time Magazine has dubbed “The Protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. Seems fitting enough, but someday we may also look back on this past year as a turning point in the history of death penalty abolition in the U.S.

On September 21, the crowds amassed around the world to protest the killing of Troy Davis were the most visible sign that opponents of capital punishment were turning up the volume.  But that wasn’t the only sign. Throughout the year more and more voices from across the U.S. spoke out against the death penalty.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST