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.
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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
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:
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The prosecutor who successfully sought a death sentence for Daniel Cook in Arizona way back in 1988 now says he “would not have sought the death penalty in this case” if he had known about Cook’s history of severe child abuse and serious mental disorders.
Those factors were not known to the prosecutor, or anyone else, until 2010 (22 years after the trial), primarily because Cook’s appointed lawyer, according to the prosecutor, was “at the low end of the competency scale for the handling of the defense of a standard felony” and “appeared neither capable nor willing to put forth the effort necessary to represent a defendant charged with a capital offense.” The lawyer in question was bi-polar and drinking heavily at the time of the trial.
Cook was to have been executed yesterday (April 5) but the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay to give themselves more time to decide whether or not to take up Cook’s claim of ineffective counsel. If the high Court does not take the case, the stay would be lifted and new death date could be set.
Last October, Jeffrey Landrigan was executed in Arizona amid a lot of hoopla about the origins and efficacy of Arizona’s batch execution drugs (which it was later learned came from a supplier operating out of a driving school in the U.K.) But in that case, as here, the controversy over the drugs used to kill overshadowed the fact that someone closely involved in issuing the death sentence (in Landrigan’s case the trial judge) vehemently opposed the execution. The trial judge in that case told Arizona’s Board of Executive Clemency that Landrigan’s death sentence “is not appropriate and never has been.”
Then, as now, incompetent defense lawyering kept important information about Landrigan’s severe mental impairment from being presented to the court. The U.S. Supreme Court in that case ruled that this new information would not have made a difference, but the judge’s statements proved conclusively that they were wrong.
Hopefully this time the U.S. Supreme Court will make the right decision.