Ohio: Angry Lawyering And Doubts About Guilt

Ohio’s Parole Board has voted 7-0 to recommend clemency for Shawn Hawkins due to doubts about his guilt and an angry lawyer that berated his jury.  Ohio Governor John Kasich does not have to follow this recommendation, but he should.  (And you can urge him to do so.)

Hawkins’ conviction rests mainly on the testimony of an eyewitness who has changed his story several times (and was initially a suspect before being granted full immunity).  There was no murder weapon found and Hawkins had several alibi witnesses.

Upset that his client was convicted despite such a weak case, Hawkins’ lawyer lashed out at (and vaguely threatened) the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial.  He warned them (according to the Parole Board’s report) that, if they issued a sentence of death, “what comes around goes around”.  No mitigating evidence was presented, and, not surprisingly, the jury came back quickly with a sentence of death.


Will Gov. Schwarzenegger Grant Clemency?

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Kevin Cooper has been on death row in California for 25 years. There are major unresolved doubts about his guilt and many, including most recently New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, have called on outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant him clemency and commute his sentence. 

The crime was undoubtedly heinous. Three members of a family (Douglas, Peggy and 11-year-old Jessica Ryen) and their 10-year-old houseguest (Christopher Hughes) were brutally murdered. But the one survivor, 8-year-old Joshua Ryen, originally said the attackers were 3 or 4 white men, and, seeing Kevin Cooper on TV, said Cooper (who is African American) was not the killer.

During the course of Cooper’s appeals, a dozen federal judges have disparaged the way his case has been handled. Important tests on physical evidence, five Ninth Circuit court judges wrote in a stinging dissent, were thoroughly botched by the federal district court:

“There is no way to say this politely. The district court failed to provide Cooper a fair hearing and … imposed unreasonable conditions on the testing …”

These judges pointed out that a test result the district court refused to consider suggested evidence had been planted, and concluded that Cooper “is probably innocent of the crimes for which the State of California is about to execute him.”

The handling of evidence in this case has been suspect from the beginning.  The reliability of Cooper’s conviction can never be guaranteed with any degree of confidence. Here at Amnesty International, we oppose all executions, no matter the circumstance, but even death penalty supporters should oppose putting someone to death when you can’t be sure they are guilty.

As in the case of Kevin Keith, when Ohio’s Governor granted him clemency despite believing he was probably guilty, and just as should happen for Troy Davis, whose conviction relied almost exclusively on shaky witness testimony, doubts about guilt should lead executives to grant clemency, if the courts can’t (or won’t) intervene.

Help us call on Governor Schwarzenegger to do just that in this case.

The Four Biggest Death Penalty Trends in 2010

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

The Death Penalty Information Center released its Year End Report today.  While there were no major turning points for the U.S. death penalty in 2010, the unworkable and degrading nature of capital punishment continued to reveal itself throughout the year.  There were lots of executions early – the first three executions took place on the same day, January 7 – but the pace slowed considerably, and the last two months of the year saw only two executions total.  There were 46 executions in all, in twelve different states.  Here are four major themes that emerged in 2010.

1. TEXAS AND OHIO LEAD THE (WRONG) WAY:  Texas, as usual, led the way with 17 executions (though this was significantly down from last year), while Ohio put 8 men to death.  Ohio’s execution proliferation caused one judge, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who also happens to be one of the people who wrote Ohio’s death penalty law, to worry that his state was becoming too much like Texas, and to call for all death sentences in the state to get a second look.  He told the Columbus Dispatch: “There are probably few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas.”

No such second guessing was allowed in Texas, where a hearing looking into whether Cameron Todd Willingham might have been wrongfully executed and another hearing considering whether the danger of executing the innocent made Texas’ death penalty unconstitutional were both put on ice by state appeals courts. One or both of these important hearings could resume in 2011, but it is more likely that the Texas death penalty will continue to skate by without serious examination, despite the exonerations and wrongful executions we already know have happened.  (Silver lining: The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports that there were just 8 death sentences in the Lone Star State in 2010, the lowest since capital punishment was re-instated in 1976.)


Thank you Gov. Strickland for not executing Kevin Keith!

Bucking the opinion of his parole board and conventional political wisdom, Ohio’s governor did something very amazing on Thursday, September 2.

Gov. Ted Strickland intervened to prevent the execution of a man convicted of murdering three people, including a child. This was no small act in a very political season. But Strickland did his job. He carefully reviewed the evidence in a terrible murder case. He recognized that the case is plagued by very serious errors in its investigation and that doubts persist about whether Keith even committed the crime at hand.

Join us in thanking Ohio’s governor for commuting Kevin Keith’s death sentence.

It is the function of executive clemency power to be a check on the judicial process because cases can slip through the cracks. And Kevin Keith’s case, not to mention his life, almost slipped right through the cracks of human error and injustice. Case after case, we see that the U.S. justice system is far too comfortable with doubt, bias and error. How could 138 people wait on death row to be executed only for it to be discovered in time that they were wrongfully convicted? What kind of system allows for such a high error rate when human life is on the line?

Gov. Strickland’s act is a bright spot amidst a continuous and macabre calendar of scheduled state killings. Perhaps authorities in all U.S. states will take notice that our death penalty system is so riddled with problems that abolition is the only true failsafe against wrongful executions.

In the meantime, we urge authorities examining cases where doubts persist and have not been fully resolved to halt executions lest they be complicit in a grave and irreversible tragedy. Certainly the leadership of Gov. Strickland could be very instructional for Georgia authorities in looking at the Troy Davis case, where courts have reviewed his case, yet serious doubts about guilt still persist.

Kevin Keith and the Witness Who Wasn't There

A man faces execution despite a strong claim of innocence.  With a conviction based on deeply flawed witness testimony, and emerging evidence pointing to an alternative suspect, doubts about his guilt continue to grow.   Yet Kevin Keith is scheduled to be put to death by the state of Ohio on September 15.  He has a clemency hearing on August 11, and he is still hoping for a court to grant him a new trial, but time is slipping away.   It is important to ACT NOW! 

Amnesty International opposes all executions, but even death penalty supporters should be concerned when serious claims of innocence have not been heard, and serious doubts about guilt have not been resolved.

Kevin Keith has been on death row since 1994, when he was convicted of the murders of Marichell Chatman, Marchae Chatman, and Linda Chatman. The night of the shooting, Marichell’s two young cousins, who were also shot, survived. One of them, Quanita Reeves, told the police that the gunman was one of her father’s friends and not Kevin Keith.

The prosecution’s case relied on the nurse of a third survivor, Richard Warren.  Police testified that the nurse, Amy Gimmets, said that Warren had given her the name ‘Kevin’. Slight problem:  in 2007, through a comprehensive search of hospital and Ohio records, it was discovered that Amy Gimmets never existed. Amy Whisman, Warren’s actual nurse, was not told who the gunman was, and Richard Warren initially told four people he did not know who the killer was.  Kevin Keith’s attorneys have looked into Warren’s identification of Kevin Keith, and concluded that it was tainted by many factors, including a highly suggestive photo line-up where Mr. Keith’s face appeared larger than the others.

No court has ever had the entirety of new evidence before it. Some of the new evidence has been time-barred and therefore has never, and may never, be heard on its merits by any court. If Kevin Keith does not get the new trial he deserves, it is imperative that he be granted executive clemency.  No one should ever be executed, but, surely no one should be executed under these circumstances.