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.


Pennsylvania Child Sex Abuse Victim Gets Execution Stay

Update 10/3: Terrance Williams had his stay of execution upheld. The PA Supreme Court, despite the participation of its chief judge with a flagrant conflict of interest, affirmed his stay of execution, and will at a later date consider last week’s ruling in a Philadelphia court that Williams should get a new sentencing hearing because of serious prosecutor misconduct.

The judge in that ruling cited prosecutors for suppressing evidence that Williams committed his crime in response to being sexually abused, a motive that would likely have caused the jury to issue a sentence other than death. Today the PA Supreme Court agreed to take its time reviewing that decision, and so state prosecutors will have to put the brakes on their strangely zealous pursuit of Williams’ execution – an execution the victim’s widow and 5 members of the jury don’t want anyway.

On October 3, Pennsylvania was scheduled to execute Terrance Williams. He was sent to death row for killing Amos Norwood, a man who repeatedly sexually abused him as a teenager.  Evidence of this motive appears to have been withheld from his defense.

Had the jury heard that the killing was in response to years of sexual abuse, it’s likely they would have voted for a sentence other than death. That’s why Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina has granted a stay of execution. She also granted a new sentencing hearing for Terrance Williams, writing that “Evidence has plainly been suppressed“. She also wrote that prosecutor Andrea Foulkes was “playing fast and loose.” and “had no problem disregarding her ethical obligations”.

Of course, the state may appeal this decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They shouldn’t, and this execution should be called off permanently.


Will Pennsylvania Execute A Victim Of Child Sexual Abuse?

Terrance Williams is facing execution in Pennsylvania on October 3.  Repeatedly sexually abused by older boys and men as a youth (starting when he was six years old), he was sent to death row for killing Amos Norwood – one of his abusers, according to the clemency petition – three months after his 18th birthday.

What Terrance Williams did was, indeed, criminal.  Killing is never an appropriate response, even to the most heinous of abuses.

But maybe that’s the point.

Wouldn’t killingTerrance Williams now, in retaliation for his crime, be just as wrong as the crime Williams committed in response to the abuse he suffered?  Lots of people think so.

Five of the trial jurors, the widow of the victim, and 30 child advocates and experts on child abuse have called on Pennsylvania to commute the death sentence in this case. So have 18 former prosecutors, 8 retired judges, and 47 mental health professionals.


Who Deserved To Die This Week?

witness viewing room death penalty

Execution viewing room for witnesses © Scott Langley

On Tuesday, Jared Loughner, who murdered 6 people and wounded a Member of Congress and a dozen others in an Arizona shooting spree, accepted a plea bargain that will result in multiple sentences of life without parole.

That same evening, Texas put to death Marvin Wilson, a man with a 61 IQ and the mind of a 7 year old.

On Wednesday, Arizona executed Daniel Cook, a man who endured horrific physical and sexual childhood abuse practically from the day he was born. The man who prosecuted Cook argued for clemency, but no one listened.


Abused In Childhood Then Sentenced To Die: 5 Stories


Late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun

The late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun regretted the Court's 1976 Gregg vs. Georgia decision allowing executions to resume, saying in his dissent: "The path the Court has chosen lessens us all."

Daniel Cook, abused since infancy and now facing execution on August 8 in Arizona, is just the most current example of someone who endured severe childhood abuse only to later face execution. (Cook has a clemency hearing on Aug. 3; the prosecutor opposes his execution and it can still be stopped.)

There have been plenty of others.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In its 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision, the US Supreme Court allowed executions to resume but required that juries be guided to restrict death sentences to the worst crimes committed by the worst offenders (aka “the worst of the worst”). The Court also endorsed laws “permitting the jury to dispense mercy on the basis of factors too intangible to write into a statute.” Defendants with mitigating circumstances (like youth, diminished mental capacity, or a history of childhood abuse) were supposed to receive lesser sentences.

So why do people with severe child abuse in their backgrounds keep ending up on death row?  Are they really among the worst? SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

From Heartbreaking Child Abuse To Pointless Execution

daniel cook

Even his prosecutor now opposes his execution, Arizona is planning to execute Daniel Cook on August 8.

Working to abolish the death penalty can sometimes be an emotionally challenging enterprise. We are immersed in a world where people suffer unimaginable losses, and we’re constantly reading about heinous crimes inflicted with brutal violence. Some of those crimes, of course, are murders. But often we are reading about another type of crime: violent child abuse, which is a defining experience for many who end up on death row.

Daniel Cook in Arizona is a case in point. Abused from infancy, he took the all too familiar path from horrific family violence to mental illness to drug abuse to violent crime to death row:

Destined for Disaster?

When, last September, Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich stopped the execution of Joseph Murphy and granted him clemency, he reasoned that a childhood of “severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him” had left Murphy “destined for disaster.”

In that statement, Governor Kasich acknowledged our society’s cycle (really, progression) of violence – from child abuse to murder to execution – and acted to stop it.  (At least for this one case – Ohio has 14 more executions scheduled between now and January 2014.)

Delaware’s Board of Pardons and Governor face a similar choice in the case of Robert Gattis, who is slated to be put to death on January 20.  Gattis suffered through a childhood experts have described as “catastrophic to his development.”  Beginning as a small child, he was raped and molested and otherwise physically abused, by multiple abusers, including close family members.  This seriously impaired his ability to function as an adult.


Armenia: Anger over Mild Sentence for Serial Pedophile

Activists and victims in Armenia are outraged that a serial pedophile has received mild sentence by a court in capital Yerevan. A speedy trial for a boarding school teacher has sentenced Levon Avagian to two years in prison for sexually and physically abusing orphans and children with special needs.

“Without hearing the victims and examining the evidence they staged a speedy trial. Had the witnesses spoken, the list of criminals would have been extended. We demand that the whole truth be revealed,” complains young activist (and vibrant environmentalist) Mariam Sukhudyan, who broke the news of the abuse in 2008 (later initiating a petition) after volunteering at the boarding school.

Sukhudyan’s reporting alerted Armenia’s pro-government Public Television (H1) to cover the story of the abuse, which resulted in the police opening the case. Soon, however, Sukhudyan was herself in trouble for reporting the abuse allegations (likely, due to her increasing green activism). She was charged with “false denunciation based on lucrative motives” – with a possible five year conviction. (The case was later dropped, and Mariam was awarded “Woman of Courage Award” by the US Embassy in Armenia.)

Mariam Sukhudyan is not the only one openly decrying the mild sentence. According to Ianyan Mag, an Armenian blog:


“The sentencing is very mild for the crimes he committed,” said Lara Aharonian, founder of the Women’s Resource Center in Armenia, in an email interview with ianyan. “This man sexually assaulted young girls, humiliated them in front of everyone, they were beaten.”


While Aharonian, who was at the court during the sentencing, does not think the time Avagian will serve is enough, she does believe it is a start to changing the law. Article 141, “Sexual acts with a person under 16″ of the Republic of Armenia Criminal Code is punishable with labor or imprisonment of up to two years.
“At least six years in prison and working to change the law with NGOs would satisfy,” she said.