Abused In Childhood Then Sentenced To Die: 5 Stories


Late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun

The late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun regretted the Court's 1976 Gregg vs. Georgia decision allowing executions to resume, saying in his dissent: "The path the Court has chosen lessens us all."

Daniel Cook, abused since infancy and now facing execution on August 8 in Arizona, is just the most current example of someone who endured severe childhood abuse only to later face execution. (Cook has a clemency hearing on Aug. 3; the prosecutor opposes his execution and it can still be stopped.)

There have been plenty of others.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In its 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision, the US Supreme Court allowed executions to resume but required that juries be guided to restrict death sentences to the worst crimes committed by the worst offenders (aka “the worst of the worst”). The Court also endorsed laws “permitting the jury to dispense mercy on the basis of factors too intangible to write into a statute.” Defendants with mitigating circumstances (like youth, diminished mental capacity, or a history of childhood abuse) were supposed to receive lesser sentences.

So why do people with severe child abuse in their backgrounds keep ending up on death row?  Are they really among the worst? SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Mississippi to Execute Man Defended by Law Clerk

witness viewing room death penalty

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

Six Jurors Oppose Oklahoma Execution

Oklahoma has the opportunity to save a life on April 8, 2010 and it is our responsibility to take action to prevent another state killing.  Richard Smith was convicted of murder in 1987, and now has been on death row for more than half of his life.  Not only do six jurors from his trial now oppose his execution, but so does a brother of the victim. 

Similar to many other death penalty cases, Richard Smith was not given an adequate defense.  His lawyer presented almost no evidence, and no expert testimony.  He did not begin investigating until seven to ten days before the date of trial, and he failed to present evidence of Smith’s past abuse as a child, addiction problems, psychological problems, brain injury, and borderline intelligence. 

If the jury at the time of the trial had heard this evidence, the outcome of Smith’s case could have been significantly different.  The six jurors who now oppose his execution exemplify the very reason why we should act in the name of justice.  Due to Smith’s poor representation in trial, we must act to commute the death sentence of Richard Smith.

Executive clemency is in place so that justice can be upheld even when the courts drop the ball.  In the case of Mr. Smith, powerful mitigating evidence was never heard by a jury.  Justice would not be served by executing Richard Smith under these circumstances.  The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board should recommend that Governor Brad Henry commute this death sentence, and Governor Henry should accept that recommendation.