Maryland’s March Towards Death Penalty Repeal

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown with Amnesty activists calling for death penalty repeal in Annapolis, Feb. 14, 2013.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown with Amnesty activists calling for death penalty repeal in Annapolis, Feb. 14, 2013.

On Valentine’s Day, in overflowing hearing rooms in both the House and Senate, Maryland legislators heard testimony from victim’s family members, former prison wardens, religious leaders, an innocent man who once faced execution in Maryland, the state’s Lieutenant Governor, and Governor Martin O’Malley. And what they heard, over and over, is that the death penalty must be abolished.

As in past years, those testifying in favor of repealing capital punishment far outnumbered those speaking for retaining it. That’s nothing new, but in other ways this year has been different. The crowds that gathered to witness the hearings were larger. The high-level political engagement has been stronger and more focused.  And the understanding that the votes exist to pass death penalty abolition into law is now fully entrenched in the Annapolis political landscape.


Reggie Clemons Hearing: More To Come

reggie clemons hearing st. louis missouri

Amnesty team waiting to enter the Reggie Clemons hearing, Sept 17, 2012

The Special Master hearing to review the Reggie Clemons case was halted on Thursday, but with more testimony and legal filings to come. In fact, the Special Master process looks to continue well into next year.  Given what’s at stake, and given the troubling nature of the case, taking more time is not a bad thing.

The allegations of police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct which feature prominently in Amnesty International’s report on the case were highlighted during the hearing. The alleged police abuse of Clemons, and the similar abuse of the state’s star witness Tom Cummins – acknowledged by a $150,000 settlement – are particularly disturbing and call into question the fairness of the investigation and prosecution in this case.


The California Abolition Bill Is Moving

against the death penaltyEarlier this summer, California State Senator Lori Hancock introduced a death penalty repeal bill (SB-490), after a study found that her state spends the exorbitant amount of $184 million dollars annually to keep capital punishment on the books.

The bill has already passed its first committee hurdle, and will have another hearing next week.

On July 5, speaking before the Assembly Public Safety Committee was former prosecutor Donald Heller, who authored California’s death penalty law back in 1978. He said: “I fervently believe that capital punishment should be abolished,” and he called for savings from death penalty repeal to be used to support law enforcement.

A former warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne Woodford, testified that the death penalty in California is “wasteful”, “counterproductive to public safety” and “terribly unfair to the victims’ families”.


Protecting Americans Abroad, And Human Rights

If you were detained abroad, would you want to be guaranteed access to help from your Embassy?  Of course you would.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from officials at the Department of Justice, the State Department, prominent constitutional lawyers, and Clare Gillis, a journalist who spent 44 fearful days detained in Libya, in support of the Consular Notification Compliance Act, legislation introduced earlier this summer by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

This bill enlists state law enforcement officials and federal courts to comply with a 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling, known as the Avena decision, which ordered the U.S. to remedy its failure to inform 51 foreign national death row prisoners of their right to access their consulate “without delay”.  This right is specified by the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations (VCCR), which became U.S. law in 1969. One of the 51 men, Humberto Leal, was recently executed by Texas as Leahy presented his legislation.


First Steps Toward Abolition in Connecticut

By Helen Jack, Yale University Amnesty International Chapter Coordinator


Following the lead of Illinois, Connecticut took a step toward death penalty abolition. On Monday, the Connecticut Judiciary Committee, a joint committee of the House and Senate, held a public hearing on bills that would end execution in the state.

Along with a group of student activists, I traveled to Hartford to attend the public hearing. In the hearing room, we put on red stickers that read, “End the Death Penalty” and joined murder victims’ family members, exonerees, religious leaders, and other members of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty who were there to support abolition.

Eighty-two victims’ family members have signed a letter supporting abolition in Connecticut, and many of those family members offered powerful testimonies before the Judiciary Committee.  This follows on the heels of last month’s powerful press conference where 76 of the victims’ family members first announced their strong endorsement of abolition (see video above).


Texas Prosecutors Giving Death Penalty Hearing the Silent Treatment

Update (12/8/2010):  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court whose judges run for the bench in partisan elections, has suspended the hearing into the constitutionality of the Texas death penalty

As a hearing to determine whether the Texas death penalty is unconstitutional began yesterday, prosecutors, who are clearly appalled that the question could even be considered, announced that they will remain silent throughout the process.  These are adults, not five-year-olds, so by all accounts they will not hold their breath until they turn blue, but they have attempted to appeal to a higher court to shut down the hearing

If that doesn’t work then, while defense attorneys provide Harris Country District Judge Kevin Fine with evidence that Texas capital punishment has become a mish-mash of bias and error that unacceptably risks executing the innocent (and there’s plenty of evidence to provide), lawyers for the state will do … nothing. 

Ironically, this means the prosecutors will be giving the Texas death penalty the same woefully inadequate legal representation that so many capital defendants have gotten.

Evidence that Texas has already executed innocent people, and that efforts to reform or improve the system have failed or been derailed by politics, continues to mount.  By not participating in this hearing, these prosecutors are exemplifying the attitude of so much of Texas leadership who, when confronted with clear proof that the death penalty system is broken, simply refuse to act.

Troy Davis Hearing in 4 Weeks

Four weeks from today, June 23, Troy Davis will get a day in court. Not a perfunctory hearing where lawyers and judges parse the written affidavits of all the witnesses who have recanted their trial testimony, but a real hearing, where those witnesses themselves will testify, in person and under oath, about what they really saw that summer night in Savannah, Georgia, more than 20 years ago. 

The hearing may be filled with high drama, as the witnesses are likely to face vigorous cross-examination.  And the outcome is far from certain.  Because this is an evidentiary hearing, and not a new trial, Troy Davis is presumed guilty and must prove his innocence. And the directive to the judge from the Supreme Court  – that he “make findings of fact” as to whether Troy Davis can “clearly establish” his innocence – does not exactly specify what the judge can do once those facts are found.

Which is why those of us who have worked so hard for justice in this case must not hold back now.  June 22, the day before the hearing begins, will be a Day of Solidarity.  A time to reflect on how far we have come in highlighting the fundamental unfairness in this case, and a time to show that we remain hopeful, but vigilant, and that we recognize the great challenge Troy Davis faces in the requirement to prove his innocence.

Solidarity events can be large (rallies, vigils, film screenings, speakers), or small (information tables, house parties or discussions).  What’s important is that we all take action together.  More information about the hearing and an Organizing Kit for taking action are available online, and you can register your event here. Please take action at this critical time!