The Cruel And Pointless Effort To Execute John Ferguson

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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.

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Harmful Errors: Texas Approaches Its 500th Execution

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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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Saudi Arabia: Two Executions a Week is Two Too Many!

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Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, including drug offences, apostasy, sorcery and witchcraft. © Private

Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, including drug offences, apostasy, sorcery and witchcraft. © Private

Saudi Arabia is executing nearly two people per week this year: We say NO MORE!

A spree of executions that has sent 10 prisoners to their deaths since the beginning of the year in Saudi Arabia must be halted, Amnesty International said earlier this week.

The beheadings included Abdullah Fandi al-Shammari, who had originally been convicted of manslaughter, but was tried again on the charge of murder in proceedings that did not meet international fair trial standards, as well as Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan foreign domestic worker.

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Saudi Arabia’s Attack on Foreign Domestic Workers

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Birth certificate of Sri Lankan Rizana Nafeek.

The passport of  Sri Lankan Rizana Nafeek. She was a foreign domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.  And at the age of 17, she was arrested on charges of murdering an infant in her care. 

Saudi Arabia has a long, infamous history of denying legal rights to foreign domestic workers, but it’s still outrageous that two recent cases indicate that these workers– whom are predominantly women —  can’t even count on basic internationally accepted protections for juveniles and the mentally ill. This month, one Sri Lanka woman paid for this failure with her life. And another’s life is at risk.

The beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan foreign domestic worker, on Jan. 12 underscored the lack of legal protections for foreign workers in Saudi Arabia.  The execution came despite an international campaign protesting her death sentence as violating international legal standards preventing the execution of juveniles.

Only 17 years old at the time of the crime, Nafeek was arrested in May 2005 on charges of murdering an infant in her care. A court in Dawadmi, a town west of the capital Riyadh, sentenced her to death in 2007.

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Death Penalty In 2012: Seven Significant Signs

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A final tally of the Connecticut legislature's  vote to abolish the death penalty.

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty.

By this time at the end of the year, states have generally stopped killing their prisoners. This break from executions is a good thing, and perhaps this year it will give us a chance to reflect on the larger question of our violent culture, and on how perhaps we can start focusing on preventing terrible crimes rather than simply responding with more violence.

The end of the year is also a time for looking back. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the Death Penalty Information Center releases its year-end report, which provides a lot of good data. This year’s version reveals the geographically arbitrary (and increasingly isolated) nature of capital punishment in the U.S. In 2012, death sentences and executions maintained their historically low levels, and only nine states actually carried out an execution.  In fact, the majority of U.S. states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Just four states were responsible for around three-fourths of the country’s executions, and four states issued about two thirds of U.S. death sentences.

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The Fatal Flaws of Texas Justice

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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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TX Judge: No Hearing For Delusional Death Row Prisoner

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Marcus Druery suffers from auditory hallucinations and “psychotic ideations”; he believes his cell has been “wired” since 2008, and that he is serving a “one month sentence”.  That’s according to health staff at the Texas prison where he is under a sentence of death (not a one month sentence).  He has an August 1 execution date.

The diagnosis, since at least 2009, has been schizophrenia, and a neuro-psychologist hired by his legal defense this year concluded that he has had paranoid schizophrenia since his mid to late 20s, and that

“delusional ideas pervade and distort his understanding of his current legal situation and his present circumstances. Because of his inflexible, psychotic, and delusional interpretation of his circumstances, Mr Druery does not have the capacity to rationally understand the connection between his crime and his punishment.”

It is a violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 ban on executing the “insane”  (and its 2007 update to that ruling in another Texas case) to put to death someone who has no rational understanding of the reason for his execution.  This was why Abdul Awkal’s execution in Ohio was stayed last month.

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The U.S. Finally Rethinking Solitary Confinement

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solitary confinementAnthony Graves spent 18 years on death row in Texas, all in solitary confinement. He was the fifth and last witness to speak at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement Tuesday morning.

Mr. Graves spoke eloquently and powerfully to a packed room and an overflow audience about his experience, the deplorable conditions, and the lasting psychological effects he cannot escape. He was exonerated and released from prison around two years ago, but still carries the scars. He spoke of watching completely sane individuals come to death row, and within three years lose their grip on reality. He described what it was like to live in a very, very small box 23 hours a day, forced to sit like a trained dog when guards delivered food.

One argument against the death penalty is the danger of executing the innocent. It’s a strong argument – Mr. Grave’s case highlights this – but no one should have to live in the conditions he described.

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10 Years Later: Still Executing The Intellectually Disabled?

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Teresa Lewis

Teresa Lewis was executed in 2010 despite being assessed with “borderline mental retardation.”

While we wait with bated breath for important human rights related end-of-term Supreme Court decisions – healthcareimmigration and juvenile life without parole among them – we look back to a landmark death penalty case decided ten years ago today, Atkins v. Virginia.

In Atkins, the Court held that executing individuals with intellectual disabilities (known then as “mental retardation”) was “cruel and unusual punishment” and prohibited by our Constitution’s Eight Amendment.

Unfortunately it was left to the states to define “mental retardation” and decide how to comply with the ruling, leading to multiple definitions and procedures in different states. To define intellectual disabilities, an IQ score of 70 has been widely used as a dividing line, but there can be multiple IQ tests with different scores, and other factors that suggest greater, or lesser, intellectual disability, so even this solid seeming number has not clarified things much.

The result has been a chaotic mish-mash in which dozens of death sentences have been reduced because of successful Atkins claims, yet several people have been executed despite claims that seem to be equally compelling:
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Mississippi to Execute Man Defended by Law Clerk

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Execution viewing room for witnesses © Scott Langley

There are many reasons our criminal justice (and capital punishment) system gets things wrong.  Police or prosecutor misconduct, mistaken witnesses, botched forensic science.  But one of the surest ways to get wrongly convicted, or get wrongly sentenced to death, is to have a bad lawyer.

Michael Brawner (scheduled for execution on June 12 in Mississippi) had a bad lawyer. In fact, prior to his trial, the legal representative doing most of the work on his case was not a lawyer at all, but a law clerk who had failed the bar exam (he passed just in time for the start of the trial).  SEE THE REST OF THIS POST