The Cruel And Pointless Effort To Execute John Ferguson

Despite several diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia and even though the Supreme Court has declared executing the severely mentally ill unconstitutional, John Ferguson is scheduled to be executed in Florida on August 5th (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

Despite several diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia and even though the Supreme Court has declared executing the severely mentally ill unconstitutional, John Ferguson is scheduled to be executed in Florida on August 5th (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

John Ferguson, a 65-year-old man with a long history of mental illness, including several diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia by prison doctors, and who refers to himself as the “Prince of God,” is set to be executed in Florida on August 5th. His crimes were horrific, no question. Ferguson was convicted of a total of eight murders committed near Miami, earning him a total of eight death sentences.

But executing the severely mentally ill, or “the insane,” has been unconstitutional since 1986 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled so in Ford v. Wainwright (a Florida case, as it turns out). In its decision, the Court, led by Thurgood Marshall, reasoned that it is cruel and pointless to put prisoners to death who don’t understand why (or in some cases even that) they are being killed.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Harmful Errors: Texas Approaches Its 500th Execution

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an "X" or the word "Executed" indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an “X” or the word “Executed” indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

On July 30, 1964, the state of Texas executed Joseph Johnson Jr. He was one of the 21 African-Americans put to death in the Lone Star State in the 1960s, out of 29 executions overall. But his was also to be the last execution in Texas for 18 years.

In the late 1960s, executions in the United States dwindled and in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all U.S. death penalty laws. New death penalty laws were permitted in 1976 and executions resumed the next year. However, it was not until late 1982, more than 18 years after Johnson’s execution, that Texas would restart its machinery of death.

Since then, Texas has been responsible for, by far, more executions than any other state. On June 26, Texas is scheduled to put Kimberly McCarthy to death – in the process carrying out its 500th execution since reinstatement.

The continued high use of the death penalty in Texas (though at a lower rate than in the so-called “zero tolerance” (1990s), flies in the face of the overall U.S. trend, which has seen death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment dropping steadily. Texas itself is not immune from that trend, as death sentences in the Lone Star State are now at historic lows.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Documenting the Execution of Troy Davis

More than 700 protesters gathered at the Georgia Capitol on the night of Troy Davis's  execution. (Photo by Scott Langley)

More than 700 protesters gathered at the Georgia Capitol on the night of Troy Davis’s execution. (Photo by Scott Langley)

One For Ten (“a series of films about innocence and death row”) has a beautiful piece today on photographer Scott Langley and his wrenching experience documenting the execution of Troy Davis. Scott is also Amnesty International’s New York State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator, and has photographed the US death penalty abolition movement for many years.

In September 2008, as Scott arrived to document Troy’s second of what would be four execution dates, the prison guard checking him in told him: “I just hope the truth comes out.”

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

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.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Georgia Kills Troy Davis

After a tense delay of more than 4 hours, the state of Georgia has just killed Troy Anthony Davis.

My heart is heavy.  I am sad and angry.  Georgia’s criminal justice system behaved with the viciousness of a defective machine, relentlessly pursuing his death while ignoring the doubts about his guilt that were obvious to the rest of the world.

Tonight we witnessed an abuse of power that exposed a justice system devoid of humanity, a dysfunctional destructive force in denial about its own deeply embedded flaws.

We could not ultimately stop Georgia’s machinery of death in this case, but the groundswell of activism Troy Davis has generated proves that people are hungry for a better system of justice.  This will be his legacy.  We will fight for a system of justice with more humanity, that accepts the possibility of mistakes, errors, and doubts.  A system of justice that believes that innocence matters.  A system of justice with more justice.

Let’s take a moment to honor the life of Troy Davis and Mark MacPhail. Then, let’s take all of our difficult feelings and re-double our commitment to the abolition of the death penalty.

not in my namePlease take this Pledge, and commit to working for abolition in your community, in your state, in your country, and in the world.

Tonight we mourn … tomorrow we organize!

Georgia's Shady Death Penalty Drug Deals

As George Costanza once said: “This thing is like an onion:  the more layers you peel, the more it stinks!

On June 23, Georgia intends execute Roy Blankenship.  For the first time they plan to use Nembutol, the anesthetic they acquired to replace sodium thiopental in their lethal injection protocols (their supply of sodium thiopental was seized by the DEA).

Lundbeck, the Nembutol’s Danish manufacturer has written a second letter demanding that their drug not be used in state killing, now pointing out that the they “cannot assure the associated safety” of the drug.

You can read both letters here.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Anthony Graves, Troy Davis and Innocence

Anthony Graves spent 12 years on death row in Texas for a crime he didn't commit.

The story of Anthony Graves illustrates how a particularly heinous crime can lead to an emotional response and a tunnel-visioned investigation, and how the result can be that someone ends up on death row based on nothing more than flimsy physical evidence (later discredited) and dubious witness testimony (later recanted).

Anthony Graves, it turns out, was innocent, and was set free from Texas death row late last year.  CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery did a good job of telling the story this weekend, and you can watch it below.

Troy Davis, who was also sentenced to death despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime, and who remains on death row in Georgia despite recantations from most of the witnesses who testified against him, has so far been unable to exonerate himself.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Executions, Secrecy and the Public Right to Know

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.

California Execution Blocked by Two Courts

California may be keeping its moratorium in place… for now. U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel has blocked the Thursday night execution of Albert Brown.  In a separate ruling, the California Supreme Court also blocked Brown’s execution.

Judge Fogel’s decision was a reversal of the one he made last Friday, in which he said Brown’s execution could go forward after Brown himself chose between a single-injection method or a three-drug cocktail. Questions arose, however, when it was discovered that the state’s supply of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic used in executions, is good only until Friday, mere hours after Brown’s scheduled execution. Not only that, but the state only has 7 grams  of the substance on hand.

Earlier, a federal appellate panel had raised concerns about this revelation of the drug’s impending expiration, and wrote: “It is incredible to think that the deliberative process might be driven by the expiration date of the execution drug.”

Judge Fogel noted that the drug’s imminent expiration was a “fact that the defendants did not disclose to this court.” He also said there was “‘no way’ the court could conduct a proper review” before Brown was scheduled to die.

Afghan Couple Stoned to Death

“We love each other no matter what happens.” Those were some of the last words of Khayyam and Siddiqa before they were stoned to death for ‘eloping’. This was the first stoning in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Surrounded by many of the victims’ neighbors and even their family members, the couple received this gruesome punishment handed down by an Islamic Council.


In fact, the execution was carried out two days after the Council of Ulema called on the Afghan government to implement harsher shari’a punishments, which included public stoning, lashing and amputations.

In an interview with MSNBC’s ‘Hardball with Chris Matthews’, Asia Pacific director T. Kumar, recently spoke on the implications of the stoning in Afghanistan (see video above).

© Amnesty International

Amnesty International called on the Afghan government and the Council of Ulema not to abuse human rights by renouncing the use of stoning as a punishment. In addition, we recommended that the International Criminal court investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in light of the “increasing brutality of the Taliban and other insurgent groups” towards Afghan citizens.

Despite continuous efforts by international human rights groups and governments, the method of execution by stoning still remains a legal punishment in several other countries. They include Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates.

The news of the couple stoned to death is a tragic and ironic remainder of ongoing abuses of human rights in Afghanistan. The Council of Ulema and the Afghan government must denounce stoning as a punishment and cease from using it.