What If A Texas Judge Cleaned Guns During Jury Selection?

cleaning gunsAnthony Haynes was only 19.  An African American with no prior criminal record, he was under the influence of crystal meth and mental health problems when he killed an off-duty police officer in Houston, Texas in May 1998.

At jury selection for his trial, the judge cleaned guns while African Americans were peremptorily removed from the jury pool.  What kind of message did that send?

A jury with 11 white members convicted Haynes. His defense lawyer then made little effort to stave off a death sentence – witnesses who could have testified that Anthony Haynes’ crime was totally out of character were not called.  The jury heard nothing about this, or about Haynes’ mental health issues, and promptly sentenced him to die.

Since his death sentence was handed down in 1999, Anthony Haynes has been a model prisoner, disproving the jury’s conclusion that he would be a continuing threat to society (a requirement in Texas for passing a death sentence).


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.


Intellectual Disability, Mercy And Georgia’s Death Penalty

warren hill

Warren Hill is scheduled for execution July 18

Georgia was the first state in the U.S. to ban the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities (known then as the “mentally retarded”), passing a law in 1988. That was 14 years before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the practice nationwide in 2002.  But on July 18, Georgia is scheduled to execute Warren Hill despite the fact that a state judge declared him to be “mentally retarded” by a “preponderance of the evidence”.

As this New York Times editorial points out, Hill still faces execution because Georgia is the only state that requires a prisoner to establish his intellectual disabilities “beyond a reasonable doubt” – an extraordinarily high standard.  Other states have more realistic requirements like the aforementioned “preponderance of the evidence” standard.

The courts have been unable to address this situation in which Georgia seems to be lurching inexorably towards an unconstitutional execution.  But the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles can still step in, uphold justice, and exercise mercy where the judiciary has fallen short.


Mississippi to Execute Man Defended by Law Clerk

witness viewing room death penalty

Execution viewing room for witnesses © Scott Langley

There are many reasons our criminal justice (and capital punishment) system gets things wrong.  Police or prosecutor misconduct, mistaken witnesses, botched forensic science.  But one of the surest ways to get wrongly convicted, or get wrongly sentenced to death, is to have a bad lawyer.

Michael Brawner (scheduled for execution on June 12 in Mississippi) had a bad lawyer. In fact, prior to his trial, the legal representative doing most of the work on his case was not a lawyer at all, but a law clerk who had failed the bar exam (he passed just in time for the start of the trial).  SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Senseless Violence from Beirut to Ohio

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

Ohio execution chamber, 2009 CAROLINE GROUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

The life of Abdul Hamin Awkal has been punctuated by violence. And on June 6, unless the Governor of Ohio steps in, his life will end in the violence of execution.

Born in Beirut in 1959, he grew up in a family with an abusive father and a history of mental illness. In 1975, when he was a teenager, the Lebanese civil war broke out, unleashing waves of violence. There followed 8 years of witnessing dismembered bodies, bombings and kidnappings. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

30 Years Later, Will A Changed Man Get Clemency?

As the month of May began, Montana’s Board of Pardons and Parole was set to hear the clemency petition of Ronald Smith, one of the two men on Montana’s death row.  Now, the decision on whether he lives or dies rests with the Governor.

Ronald Smith committed a terrible crime back in 1982, but the passage of 30 years has seen him evolve into an utterly different person.  This was not a legal development (he is still guilty), but is the kind of human transformation that clemency was designed to recognize.  Our courts can’t commute sentences based on changes in the hearts and minds of the convicted (that’s not their role), but our executive branch – our Governors and our pardon and parole boards – can.

At the May 2 clemency hearing, the Montana parole board heard all about Ronald Smith’s transformation:  from retired prison officials, a clinical psychologist, a Catholic priest and prison educator, a former probation officer and members of the Smith family.

The psychologist said that Ronald Smith: “has demonstrated significant change in attitude, thoughts and behavior. He is what would be considered a model prisoner in the modern setting.”


Will Montana Recognize Redemption?

Ronald Smith, a Canadian national, is facing a clemency hearing on May 2 in Montana. He was sentenced to die for a crime committed almost 30 years ago, a crime for which he has consistently expressed remorse. He has since rebuilt his life from inside the prison walls. Putting him to death now would serve no purpose, and Montana should not do it.

One of the problems with the death penalty is that it denies the possibility that people can reform.

At the time of his arrest for his part in the August 1982 killing of two Native Americans, Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit Jr., Smith wanted to take full responsibility for the crime and in fact asked for the death penalty. He got it.

His lawyer, who had never tried a death penalty case before, was no help. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that this lawyer “failed to investigate the facts of the crime, failed to investigate Smith’s mental state at the time of the crime, and failed to discuss possible defenses before Smith pled guilty.” (Bizarrely, and typically, this Court nonetheless ruled that the lawyer had not harmed his client enough to warrant any relief.)


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.


Not In Our Name: Georgia Must Not Execute Troy Davis

Troy Davis too much doubtOutrageous.  Simply outrageous.

Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles has rejected Troy Davis’ clemency petition.  He faces execution on Wed., Sept. 21 at 7 pm EDT.  We do not accept this decision and we will not quietly sit by.  Join us by taking more action:  demand that the Board reconsider its decision and demand that Chatham County (Savannah) District Attorney Larry Chisolm seek a withdrawal of the death warrant and support clemency himself.

This appalling decision renders meaningless the Board’s 2007 vow to not permit an execution unless there is “no doubt” about guilt.  The Troy Davis case is riddled with doubt. Most of the witnesses who testified against him have recanted, while others have pointed to an alternate suspect as the real killer.

Nearly a million supporters of human rights and justice have called for clemency in this case, so far.  They believed in the common-sense notion that you should not execute someone when you can’t be sure they are guilty.

Death penalty supporters like Bob Barr, former Texas Governor Mark White,  and former FBI Director William Sessions also support clemency in this case, for the same reason.  And at least three jurors from Davis’ trial have asked for his execution to be called off. Putting Troy Davis to death would be a grave injustice to those jurors who believe they sentenced Davis to death based on questionable information.

The Board chose to ignore this huge number and wide range of voices, so we must raise our voices even more.  Demand that Georgia authorities Stop This Execution.

Georgians Raise Voices For Troy Davis, Thousands Back Them Up

Thousands came out for Troy Davis in Atlanta on September 16th

About 3,500 people marched and prayed for Troy Davis in Atlanta last night.  Three busloads of supporters arrived from Davis’ hometown of Savannah along with other buses from Columbus and Rome, Georgia.

Ebenezer Baptist Church could not accommodate about half the supporters who arrived for the prayer service led by Rev. Raphael Warnock of Dr. King’s historic church.  So an impromptu rally took place outside the church, while death row exonerees, a murder victim family member, Georgia clergy and nationally prominent human rights leaders, such as our Executive Director Larry Cox and that of the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous spoke inside.  The march was an amazing sight to see – a sea of signs declaring “Too Much Doubt” and “Stop the Execution” held by a diversity of individuals and groups.