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

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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.


Death Penalty Abolition: Five States That Could Be Next

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witness viewing room death penalty

Witness viewing room © Scott Langley

Three states have abolished the death penalty legislatively in recent years: New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009, and Illinois in 2011.  Inevitably, more states will follow; but can a state or states abolish the death penalty in an even-numbered (read: election) year?  We will find out in 2012.

As Politico reported on Friday, states that are poised to end their experiment with capital punishment next year include Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, and Ohio, as well as California (through a ballot initiative).  This is quite a diverse collection of states, ranging from small to large and from conservative to liberal, which goes to show how mainstream an issue death penalty abolition has become.


California's Big Death Penalty Moment

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death penalty californiaBy this time next year, the death penalty could be a thing of the past in California. Find out more and get involved now.  It is a very big deal.

They say everything is bigger in Texas, but, in reality, even when it comes to the death penalty, many of the most important things are actually bigger in California.  California’s death row is more than twice the size of the one in Texas, and last year Los Angeles County alone accounted for as many death sentences (8) as the entire Lone Star State. (California sentenced 28 people to death statewide.)


California: 2012 Ballot Initiative To Replace Death Penalty

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In California, on average, 46% of murders and 56% of rapes go unsolved each year.  For victims and their families, and for the cause of public safety, these numbers are profoundly disturbing.

A new ballot initiative (changing the law in California often requires a direct public referendum) aims to do something about this, by redirecting funds wasted on the death penalty ($184 million per year according to a recent study), to local police and prosecutors to ensure that more crimes actually get solved. Since 1978, there have been 13 executions in California, at a cost of $308 million per execution.  In 2009 alone, the best year of the decade for solving murders, there were 722 unsolved homicides.

Bringing killers and rapists to justice is obviously very important for victims and their families, and is also clearly vital to public safety. And whatever deterrent value you might think the death penalty has (probably none), it is vastly overshadowed by the reality that, now, if you commit murder in California, you have an almost 50/50 chance of never getting caught at all.

The proposed initiative would also require those convicted of murder to work in prison and provide restitution to victims’ families.   And, importantly, it would end California’s shameful association with the notorious human rights abuse of capital punishment.

If this initiative gets on the ballot and voters approve it in November 2012, California will finally escape from the financial (and human rights) black hole that is the death penalty, and will be free to focus its resources more effectively on public safety and on the real needs of victims.

The California Abolition Bill Is Moving

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against the death penaltyEarlier this summer, California State Senator Lori Hancock introduced a death penalty repeal bill (SB-490), after a study found that her state spends the exorbitant amount of $184 million dollars annually to keep capital punishment on the books.

The bill has already passed its first committee hurdle, and will have another hearing next week.

On July 5, speaking before the Assembly Public Safety Committee was former prosecutor Donald Heller, who authored California’s death penalty law back in 1978. He said: “I fervently believe that capital punishment should be abolished,” and he called for savings from death penalty repeal to be used to support law enforcement.

A former warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne Woodford, testified that the death penalty in California is “wasteful”, “counterproductive to public safety” and “terribly unfair to the victims’ families”.


New Bill Would Abolish California's Death Penalty

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According to a recent study, if California were to rid itself of the death penalty and everyone on death row received the next highest penalty on the books (life without parole) it would save tax payers $184 million per year.

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

No state, certainly not California, can afford to waste public money like this. This is a state that has cut valuable social services and funds for education in the face of serious budget shortfalls.

The death penalty is a public policy failure that does not represent the best of our values as a society that says it is committed to human rights. It is a distraction from real solutions that could prevent violent crime and bring valuable services to murder victims’ families.

What could the state do with $184 million per year to improve the lives of Californians?


California Domestic Violence Case Can Help End Impunity in Kashmir

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This is part of a series of articles on Kashmir for Amnesty International’s Security and Human Rights Campaign.

You can take action to end impunity for human rights violations in Kashmir by taking action.

Major Avtar Singh, a retired officer in the Indian Army and an indicted human rights violator, was arrested in February 2011 on domestic violence charges in an agricultural region of California. While he should definitely face charges in California on domestic violence charges, he must also be extradited to India to face murder charges for the killing of a human rights lawyer in 1996.

The story starts in 1996 during the height of the violence that wracked the disputed Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Many human rights organizations, civil society groups and human rights defenders faced threats from anti-India militants and Indian security forces.

One of those of brave human rights defenders, Jalil Andrabi, paid with his life. Andrabi was a prominent defender of human rights in the Kashmir Valley, exposing a number of human rights violations committed by Indian security forces. He was last seen on March 8, 1996, when he was taken away by Srinagar based military personnel who were led at that time by Major Avtar Singh. Nineteen days later, Jalil Andrabi’s dead body was found in the Jhelum River.

Those responsible for the death of Jalil Andrabi have remained free for years, despite persistent efforts by his family and members of the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association to obtain legal redress for his death.

As you know, we have released a report on administrative detentions in Kashmir and visited the region as part of the release. So, we had a chance to speak Jalil Andrabi’s brother and lawyer, Arshad Andrabi. He blamed the Indian authorities for failing to ensure that Major Singh stood trial even after he was named as accused by a special investigation team set up on the orders of the Jammu and Kashmir high court a year after the murder. According to Arshad Andrabi, evidence exists which suggests that at least five others were present in the room at the time of Jalil’s death, but none of them were ever charged with any offence.

Arshad Andrabi accused the Indian authorities of trying to avoid a trial. The Jammu and Kashmir high court had noted that the central government officials had not been cooperating with the special investigation team in a proper manner, and the Indian army has also failed to take any action, merely stating that Major Singh was untraceable. Singh left India for Canada before moving to the United States.

Well, Government of India, he’s been found and it’s time to stop abdicating your responsibilities in this matter. Seek the extradition of Major Avtar Singh and prosecute him for the cold-blooded murder of Jalil Andrabi. You can help by taking action and writing the Indian Embassy on this matter.

For more on human rights in South Asia, please follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/acharya_dude.

Will Gov. Schwarzenegger Grant Clemency?

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Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Kevin Cooper has been on death row in California for 25 years. There are major unresolved doubts about his guilt and many, including most recently New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, have called on outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant him clemency and commute his sentence. 

The crime was undoubtedly heinous. Three members of a family (Douglas, Peggy and 11-year-old Jessica Ryen) and their 10-year-old houseguest (Christopher Hughes) were brutally murdered. But the one survivor, 8-year-old Joshua Ryen, originally said the attackers were 3 or 4 white men, and, seeing Kevin Cooper on TV, said Cooper (who is African American) was not the killer.

During the course of Cooper’s appeals, a dozen federal judges have disparaged the way his case has been handled. Important tests on physical evidence, five Ninth Circuit court judges wrote in a stinging dissent, were thoroughly botched by the federal district court:

“There is no way to say this politely. The district court failed to provide Cooper a fair hearing and … imposed unreasonable conditions on the testing …”

These judges pointed out that a test result the district court refused to consider suggested evidence had been planted, and concluded that Cooper “is probably innocent of the crimes for which the State of California is about to execute him.”

The handling of evidence in this case has been suspect from the beginning.  The reliability of Cooper’s conviction can never be guaranteed with any degree of confidence. Here at Amnesty International, we oppose all executions, no matter the circumstance, but even death penalty supporters should oppose putting someone to death when you can’t be sure they are guilty.

As in the case of Kevin Keith, when Ohio’s Governor granted him clemency despite believing he was probably guilty, and just as should happen for Troy Davis, whose conviction relied almost exclusively on shaky witness testimony, doubts about guilt should lead executives to grant clemency, if the courts can’t (or won’t) intervene.

Help us call on Governor Schwarzenegger to do just that in this case.

Politics + Executions = Comedy Gold!

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In emails that have come out during the appeal of New Hampshire’s one and only death sentence, we have learned that former New Hampshire Attorney General (and current U.S. Senator-elect) Kelly A Ayotte began plans to run for election just days after announcing she was seeking the death penalty in the case.  As the New Hampshire Union Leader reports (in a special “print-only” article):

In one e-mail exchange between Ayotte and Robert Varsalone, her friend and future political advisor, under the subject “Get ready to run….,” Varsalone discussed Republican campaign chances and possible candidates.

“Have you been following the last 2 week.  A police officer was killed and I announced that I would seek the death penalty,” Ayotte responded to Varsalone in the Oct 27, 2006 e-mail.

“I know, I read about it.  Where does AG Ayotte stand on the Death Penalty? BY THE SWITCH,” Varsalone wrote back.

Funny stuff.

Speaking of politics, as California officials were trying in October to engineer a pre-election execution (an effort that failed and cost the state’s taxpayers $4 million) it turns out they were madly searching the globe for sodium thiopental, since their supply of the execution drug had expired.  From Pakistan to the U.K. they looked, but, as Stephen Colbert (who is a real comedian) explains below, they eventually found what they were looking for in neighboring Arizona, leading one California official to quip, “You guys are life-savers.”

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tiny Triumphs – Lethal Drug Shortage
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog March to Keep Fear Alive

Executions, Secrecy and the Public Right to Know

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Sakineh Ashtiani is at risk of execution in Iran. Last month, her lawyer and her son were arrested, apparently for discussing her case with foreign nationals.  Her other lawyer, prominent human rights and death penalty defense lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, was hounded into exile over the summer when he refused to be silenced.

Alan Shadrake is due to be sentenced next Tuesday 9 November © Alan Shadrake

In Singapore, Alan Shadrake is now a convicted criminal because he wrote a book about capital punishment in that country.  He could be sent to prison next week.

While these episodes may be extreme, the same efforts to suppress information about the death penalty are at work here in the USA where, for instance, a state law in Missouri makes it a crime – even for journalists – to reveal the identities of those who participate in executions.

It’s the same principle of secrecy that allows Arizona and California to continue to conceal the source of their execution drugs, or for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to call for such information to be classified as a “state secret.”  The claim that such secrecy is necessary to protect executioners from harassment is incredibly weak.  Other government agencies and employees (for example, the guy at the DMV who makes you wait in line, or the city employee who gives you parking tickets) don’t benefit from such undemocratic anonymity.  The public has a fundamental right to know what a state agency is doing with their tax dollars, especially when that agency is engaged in the ultimate act of state power – the killing of a human being.

Most of us would agree (I hope) that lawyers should not be detained for publicizing their client’s case, and that no one should be punished for writing about a country’s death penalty (although that could happen under Missouri’s law).  When government is exercising its greatest power, that’s when we should demand the greatest transparency.  This is essential to ensuring accountability and preventing that power from being abused.

Instead, we are seeing, both globally and here in the USA, a disturbing trend towards imposing greater secrecy on the executions that are carried out in our name.