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.

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The Fatal Flaws of Texas Justice

texas death chamber death penalty

The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

Good News: Californians are currently debating the various dysfunctions that plague their capital punishment system, and could in fact bring that failed experiment to a merciful end on November 6.

Bad News: The political leadership of the state of Texas continues to myopically ignore (or deliberately conceal) the massive flaws in their own heavily used death penalty. And today, Halloween, the Lone Star State is set to kill its 250th prisoner under Governor Rick Perry.

As Amnesty International’s new report points out, Governor Perry, in his first state of the state address in January 2001 (he’s been Governor since December 2000), touted Texas executions, somewhat perversely, for “affirm[ing] the high value we place on innocent life.” But he then did at least say that the state’s justice system “can be better.”

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10 Reasons Death Penalty Abolition is Coming

Today is the 10th World Day Against the Death Penalty, an annual October 10 event created by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty of which Amnesty International is a founding member. Since that first World Day on Oct. 10, 2003, executions are on the wane both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Here are 10 reasons to celebrate 10 years of progress this World Day:

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Victory: No More Mandatory Life Sentences For Children In US

Christi Cheramie

Christi Cheramie was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole at the age of 16 in 1994.

It’s not a total ban on juvenile life without parole, but at least now courts considering the crimes of juvenile offenders will have options other than a mandated life without parole sentence. So it’s a welcome step forward.

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that laws mandating life without parole for juvenile offenders, with no other options, are unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual punishment”.  In other words, to be constitutional, a juvenile life without parole scheme needs to have other, lesser, alternatives, so that courts will have the flexibility to consider mitigating factors that are invariably part of a young offender’s background.

While this ruling still allows for the possibility that those under 18 years of age at the time of the crime could be sentenced to life without parole, it is a step in the right direction.

According the Justice Roberts’ dissent, there are over 2,000 juvenile offenders currently serving life without parole who were sentenced under a mandatory scheme (see our infographic). This represents about 80% of the child offenders serving life without parole.

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Why Is The US Still Executing Teenage Offenders?

18 and 19 and 20 year-olds are not considered responsible enough decision makers to drink legally, yet they can be held fully responsible for their crimes and sentenced to the ultimate, irreversible punishment of death.

Texas is preparing to execute Yokamon Hearn on July 18th. If his execution is carried out, he would become the 483rd person put to death since Texas resumed executions in 1982.

Yokamon Hearn was 19 years old when he and 3 other youths set out to steal a car. They ended up shooting and killing Frank Meziere, a 23-year-old stockbroker. All four defendants were charged with capital murder, but the other three plead guilty and received deals. One got life imprisonment, the other two got ten years for aggravated robbery.

Yokamon Hearn was a teenager at the time of his crime, but not a juvenile. Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of Child lays out the international standard for not executing juvenile offenders, defined as those who were under 18 at the time of the crime. (The U.S. is the only country except for Somalia that has not ratified this treaty.)

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Iranian Human Rights Lawyer Free on Bail, Still At Risk

After spending one week at in Evin prison in Tehran, Mohammad Mostafaei — the attorney famous for defending juvenile offenders in death penalty cases in Iran — was released on July 1 on a one billion rial bail (more than $100,000).  Mostafaei was arrested the previous week for his human rights activism during the Iranian protests, which erupted in the wake of the announcement of Iran’s election results in mid-June.  The accusations against him include charges of conspiracy and propaganda, as well as an alleged intention to harm “state security,” even though his activities have been entirely peaceful and guided by his dedication to human rights in the country. 

After his release, Mostafaei publicly thanked his supporters and fellow activists across the world and said that this experience has strengthened his resolve to fight against injustice.  However, Mostafaei is still in direct danger of prosecution, imprisonment and even torture for defending and publicly expressing his beliefs.   A potential conviction and incarceration would be a huge blow to human rights in Iran.  It will also be a major setback in the fight against the execution of juvenile offenders in the country, which Mostafaei has led for so long.

Human Rights / Death Penalty Lawyer Arrested in Iran

In the midst of all of the political and social turmoil in Iran right now, activist and lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei was arrested this afternoon and taken away by plainclothes officers while out with his wife and daughter. The arrest was most likely related to his human rights activites connected with the recent protests, but he is most well-known for his work representing juveniles facing the death penalty.  The officials searched Mostafaei’s home and his office after arresting him and then took him away to an undisclosed location. His family has not been informed of his whereabouts.

Mohammad Mostafaei is a lawyer who, among other things, represents those on death row who were juveniles at the time of their crimes. He currently has 25 such cases. As a signitory of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Iran has agreed not to execute anyone for a crime committed before the age of 18, but they have ignored this agreement many many times. By Amnesty International’s count, Iran has executed 18 child offenders since 2007.

Several juvenile offenders are currently at risk of execution in Iran, including Mohammad Reza Haddadi and Naser Qasemi, and Mehdi Mazroui.

It is important for the Iranian government to know that others are watching how they treat their citizens, particularly those who work in defense of human rights. And it is important for Iranian human rights defenders to have our support. Mostafaei is, in many cases, the only hope his clients have of being spared their life, but there is little that he can do from behind bars. Please urge Iranian leaders to release Mostafaei, and to permit others to speak out without fear of persecution.

Stop These Executions!

Delara Darabi faces imminent execution.  Like many sentenced to death in Iran, she was convicted of a crime committed when she was a child.  Almost no other country in the world executes juvenile offenders, yet Iran has put 16 of them to death since the beginning of 2007.  Iran’s death row continues to house scores of young men and women facing the noose for crimes that took place when they were under 18 years old.  These include Abumoslem Sohrabi and Abbas Hosseini, whose executions may also be imminent.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child forbids the death penalty for crimes committed by underage offenders, and the CRC is the most universally accepted human rights treaty there is.  (Only Somalia, and the good ole USA have failed to ratify this no-brainer of a human rights instrument; thankfully the US Supreme Court found executing child offenders unconstitutional – by a 5-4 vote – back in 2005).  Iran has accepted this treaty, so why is this still happening?

That is the question a strong human rights movement inside Iran is asking, as they seek to end the execution of juvenile offenders.  We can support this courageous effort by taking action on behalf of people like Delara Darabi, Abumoslem Sohrabi and Abbas Hosseini.

Bad News, Good News

The bad news is that the United States is still among the top executioners in the world.  The good news is that the numbers are down.  According to an Amnesty International report released today, the U.S. remains in league with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq as the countries responsible for the most executions in 2008.  But the 37 executions that took place in the U.S. in 2008 was the lowest total since 1994

This is partly due to the moratorium imposed on executions while the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of lethal injection, but it is also due to the steady erosion of support for capital punishment in our courtrooms, our jury rooms, our state legislatures and among the general public.  Death sentences have been declining steadily for several years.  Public support is down 15 to 20 points.  When alternatives are offered, polls show that the public is often evenly divided between supporting the death penalty or preferring sentences like life without parole.  And more and more states are engaging in serious death penalty abolition debates, including in New Mexico, where Governor Bill Richardson signed death penalty repeal into law last week.

This decline of capital punishment is mirrored internationally, where, as of the end of 2008, more than two-thirds of the world’s nations had either ceased practicing capital punishment, or had abolished it altogether.  A UN General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate worldwide moratorium on executions passed in December with 106 yes votes, and only 46 no votes, with 34 abstentions.

In both the U.S. and the world, capital punishment is increasingly a regional phenomenon.  In the U.S. the vast majority of executions take place in the South, with most of those occurring in Texas.  Globally, the vast majority of executions take place in Asia and the Middle East, with most of those occurring in China.

Since 1977, when Amnesty International first adopted the death penalty as a fundamental human rights issue, we have seen a slow but steady decline in its use worldwide; since the turn of the new century we have begun to see a similar decline here in the U.S.  While Amnesty International’s report clearly reveals deeply troubling capital punishment practices in some countries (beheadings in Saudi Arabia, hanging of juvenile offenders in Iran, large numbers of executions after unfair trials in China), the long-term trends are equally apparent, and in favor of abolition.