‘Anyone Who Says We Live Comfortably on Death Row Has Obviously Never Been There’

Damon Thibodeaux

Damon Thibodeaux was released after 15 years on death row.

Damon Thibodeaux lived under the threat of execution for more than a decade.

Now 38, Damon was convicted of the murder of 14-year-old Chrystal Champagne, his step-cousin, and sentenced to death in 1997. But he always insisted on his innocence and after spending 15 years in prison, he finally walked out of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola – one of the harshest prisons in the country – a free man. This is his story.


Gambia’s Execution Spree: “We Don’t Know Who Will Be Next!”

gambia executions protest

Protesters gather outside the Gambian embassy in Senegal on August 30, 2012 to demand President Yahya Jammeh halt the mass execution of prisoners. (Photo AFP/GettyImages)

While many nations have eliminated the threat of execution by abolishing the death penalty, the president of the Gambia is taking a very different and far more troubling approach.  President Yahya Jammeh pledged recently in a televised broadcast to empty his country’s death row by executing all its prisoners by mid-September.  This West African nation about the size of Connecticut had not executed anyone in more than a quarter of a century.  In the past week alone, authorities have executed at least nine people.

A rising number of organizations and governments around the world are calling on President Jammeh to stop the executions, including the Gambia’s neighbor, Senegal, along with the African Union, the European Union, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Amnesty International.


A 64 Million Dollar Question

Killing prisoners is an abuse of state power.  Even if it saved money it would still be the ultimate human rights violation.  But of course, it doesn’t save money.   The death penalty costs money.   This is especially true in California, where a study recently concluded that abolishing capital punishment would save the state over $100 million a year.  And that’s not including the hundreds of millions of dollars California needs to build a new death row.

Now comes the news that Governor Schwarzenegger intends to borrow $64 million from his state’s already depleted General Fund to keep the new death row construction going.  How else could $64 million be spent?  The ordinary Californians surveyed in this video thought first, not of yet another prison, but of education, housing for the homeless, and better transportation.

When 500 Chiefs of Police were surveyed as to “what interferes with effective law enforcement”, insufficient use of the death penalty came in dead last, with only 2% citing it as a problem.  At the top of the list for these Police Chiefs were “lack of law enforcement resources” (naturally), but also of most concern were drug/alcohol abuse, family problems/child abuse, and lack of programs for the mentally ill. 

$64 million could go a long way towards addressing these real concerns. So how does it makes sense to divert scarce resources that could improve the lives (and safety) of Californians, just to maintain an ineffective policy that violates basic human rights?

Troy Davis Hearing: Landmark Opportunity for Justice

The hearing at the Savannah federal district court tomorrow is both historic and unprecedented.  Never before has the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a hearing to determine if it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is innocent. While this hearing is of the utmost importance to Troy Davis and the entire Savannah community, it also carries great legal significance.

Following his conviction in 1991, the case against Davis has unraveled, with seven of the nine witnesses recanting or contradicting their original testimony. After spending 19 years on death row and facing three execution dates, Davis has been given an opportunity to present evidence pointing to his innocence in a court of law.

This is a momentous opportunity that Amnesty International worked for and welcomes. But the burden of proof has been turned on its head. The court has set a very high bar: rather than ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ Davis must clearly prove he is innocent.

With 138 death row prisoners having been exonerated since 1973, it is more than a possibility that innocent people will be executed in the United States. It is inevitable in a broken system. The justice system should therefore be especially concerned with cases like Davis.’

Even as truth and justice are sought, we cannot forget the tragedy of a life lost. Mark Allen MacPhail was the innocent victim of a terrible murder. It is important to remember that the Savannah community lost a brave public servant, and acknowledge Officer MacPhail’s family during this difficult time. It is our sincere hope that this hearing will shed more truth on what happened the night of his murder and that justice will finally be served.

Larry Cox is the Executive Director of  Amnesty International USA.  He is currently in Savannah, GA to attend Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.

A Visit with Troy Davis

This Wednesday, an amazingly historic hearing will begin here in Savannah, Georgia where I will be all week.  The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Savannah federal district court to hold an evidentiary hearing to give death row prisoner Troy Davis an opportunity to present his innocence claim.

Troy Davis' sister Martina Correia with Laura Moye outside Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison where death row is housed in Jackson, Georgia

I visited Troy along with his family yesterday and asked him how he was doing.  He seemed fairly calm, but not sure how to feel.  His life has been on a rollercoaster ride ever since he was implicated for the murder of a police officer twenty-one years ago.  Three years ago, when Amnesty International first started campaigning intensively on his case, an execution was scheduled then stayed.  This happened two more times in the next two years.  I’m not sure how I would feel either given the ups and downs of our justice system.  But I did detect hope, which he has held onto these nineteen years on death row.

This was my second visit to Troy.  It was a strange place to be on Father’s Day.  But once I walked through the numerous double-gated areas to find the Davis family gathered around him, it felt oddly normal to be in their midst on this family-oriented holiday.  Troy was playing jokes on his two-year old niece, a bundle of energy that the whole Davis clan watches over and dotes on so fondly.  He has clearly been a source of support for his teenage nephew whom he checks on regularly to ensure he’s doing well in school.  And it’s this remarkable family, so full of love and commitment to each other, and to their faith, that accounts for the life that remains in Troy’s eyes, despite all that he has faced.

The hearing is a serious opportunity for the doors of justice to open, but it won’t be easy.  He’ll have to prove that he is clearly innocent.  In a trial, the state would have the burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  And just what this legal standard of “clearly establishing innocence” means is a matter for the judge at the hearing to determine.

I hope to get a seat in the courtroom while the hearing is under way; though, there are likely to be throngs of people wanting to get in.  I sincerely hope that the hearing will shed more light on what happened the night of the tragic murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail.  Both families have been waiting for justice and it’s time for the doubts to be addressed.

It is very sad that Troy’s family has had to think about the possibility of losing someone they love, someone who is clearly an active participant in their lives.  Being in the prison reminded me of how the death penalty creates more victims – the innocent families of the accused.  I have no idea what Father’s Day is like for the MacPhail’s and I wouldn’t pretend to know.  Justice has been a long time coming for them too.  And I really don’t know what to expect this week as the hearing draws closer, but I sincerely hope that learning more of the truth will lead to a more robust justice and help the healing of both families and of the larger community.

College students read last words of the executed

A couple of days ago, we revealed staggering statistics about countries utilizing capital punishment. Our newest report Death Sentences and Executions shows that the U.S. ranks 7th in the world. Texas leads with the number of executions performed in 2009. Without wasting any time, college students in San Antonio, TX raised their voices in protest against the death penalty.

Check out this video from the event:

Visit www.amnestyusa.org/abolish or email dpac@aiusa.org to get involved.

Troy Davis' nephew lends voice for human rights

Yesterday, Troy Davis’ nephew, Antone’ De’Juan Davis-Correia, was featured in a segment on a couple of local Savannah TV stations (WJCL and Fox 28).

At age 15, he has been traveling around the country, and indeed around the world, speaking out on behalf of his uncle and against the death penalty. At his young age, he has become a powerful voice both in support of his family and for the cause of human rights.

Also yesterday, the Savannah Morning News features a story about the latest developments in the preparations for Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.  According to this report, Davis’ attorneys are seeking information from Savannah police files, never before released despite previous Open Records Act requests, which they argue support his innocence claims.  The state has until February 12 to respond at which point the judge overseeing the hearing will decide whether or not those files should be turned over.

No date has been set for the actual hearing.

On a more somber note, there are disturbing reports from Georgia’s death row that authorities have instituted unusually harsh measures that affect both the inmates and their visiting families and clergy, following two recent (non-execution) deaths.  Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (GFADP)  has more information, and an action you can take to address these misguided and counterproductive policies.

Imminent Execution

Kenneth Mosley is scheduled for execution on September 24. He has been on death row for the past twelve years. Mr. Mosley was convicted of killing a police officer while attempting to rob a bank in Garland, Texas on February 15, 1997.

Kenneth Mosley

Kenneth Mosley

If and when he is executed, Mr. Mosley will be among the 200+ victims of the death penalty under a single Texas governor.

Mr. Mosley has committed a terrible crime, and things look grim for him. He overcame many adversities in his life, but finally a combination of addiction and difficult circumstances led to this tragedy. Still he says:

I’m staying positive and have hope that something good will happen …

Kenneth Mosley grew up in an abusive home. His family was very poor, and racial tensions ran high in the community.  In spite of it all, Kenneth managed to finish high school and a year of college. Unfortunately, he did not have the financial means to continue his education. He left college to work in a Coca Cola Bottling Company. Soon afterwards, he met and married his wife Carol.  They had a baby girl named Amber.

Life was going well for the Mosely family, but things started to fall apart when Ken became addicted to crack cocaine. He and his wife sought treatment from many different clinics, but after losing his job, he lost his health insurance and, with it, any hope of affording treatment for his addiction. His life went into a downward spiral.

One day, with a gun in his pocket, Ken walked into a bank. A police officer, who later paid with his own life, spotted him and attempted to stop him from robbing the bank. They struggled and crashed through a window. During the struggle,  the officer was shot and killed.

During Ken’s trial, the quality of the representation he received was so poor that he may as well have been deprived of his constitutional right to effective counsel.  The lawyers failed to present evidence of several mitigating factors that may have influenced the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty.  For example, despite the fact that Ken suffered a brain injury resulting in permanent damage, his attorneys did not even examine Ken’s medical records.  Nor did they address his debilitating addiction to crack cocaine.  No evidence of either impairment was presented to the jury.

If you wish to participate in efforts to obtain clemency for Kenneth Mosley, see Amnesty’s Urgent Action for Kenneth Mosley. For additional information, visit http://www.kennethmosley.org/.

New Jersey: One Year Ago Today

One year ago today, Dec. 17, 2007, New Jersey Gov. John Corzine signed into law the bill abolishing the death penalty in New Jersey.  It was the first time in 42 years that a state had legislatively ended capital punishment (Iowa and West Virginia did it in 1965), and made the Garden State the 14th abolitionist state in the U.S. 

New Jersey politicians showed real leadership on this issue, and should be thanked.

What has been the result in New Jersey’s first year without the death penalty?  Has violent crime sky-rocketed?  Are wild dogs roaming the streets?  Are murderous zombies now regularly feasting on human flesh?? 

Well, no.  The consensus seems to be that not much has changed at all.  As Richard Pompelio, executive director of the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center, put it in an article in the Newark Star-Ledger

“I don’t think it’s made much of a difference at all other than that some of the cases that were languishing out there are now getting tried. The important thing for crime victims is that the process have an end, and with the death penalty there never was an end.”

Other states, especially those like New Jersey with few on death row, fewer executions, and tight budgets, may be well on their way to repealing their own death penalty statutes in 2009.   Maryland and New Mexico are the most likely candidates, though in every state the value of clinging to capital punishment is being viewed with ever greater skepticism, and in every state, activists are getting organized to push for abolition.

AIUSA has volunteer leaders in most states who are in the thick of this fight.  You can get more information and contact Amnesty’s death penalty abolition leaders by going to our Death Penalty in States map, and clicking on your state.

Happy Human Rights Day!

Manya Menapace, 81, of Pennsylvania, has already started writing letters for the Global Write-a-thon

Manya Menapace, 81, of Pennsylvania, has already started writing letters for the Global Write-a-thon.

Today is a day when I feel especially grateful for all my rights–that I can write this blog entry, that I am free, that I am not in prison just for expressing my beliefs, that I can choose my religion, that I am able to make my own choices about marriage and family, that I have an education, that I can work, that I can rest, and that I can get care when I’m sick.

Human Rights Day is not a happy day for everyone, though. Right this minute, there are prisoners of conscience languishing in cells, people on death row waiting for the end to come, and human rights defenders looking over their shoulders wondering if today is the day the death threats will be carried out. What can I, who am so rich in rights (though no less rich than anyone should be) do to help these individuals?

I can write. I can put pen to paper and tell the authorities why I’m concerned, and push them to do what needs to be done. Thousands of people around the world are doing just that today, and all this week. Today, don’t just raise your glass and toast to human rights–pick up a pen and act!