Our Death Penalty: Inciting Murder And Killing Arbitrarily

Rally to abolish the death penaltyWhen Robert Gleason Jr. was put to death in Virginia on January 16 (he chose the electric chair) he became the 140th so-called “volunteer” for execution since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.  In fact, over 10% of US executions have been “voluntary,” usually meaning that the prisoner has given up his appeals.

But in Gleason’s case it was more than that. He specifically killed to get the death penalty. He strangled his cellmate and vowed to keep on killing unless he was executed.  And this is not the first time someone has committed murder in order to get the state to kill him.  In Ohio in 2009, Christopher Newton was put to death for killing his cellmate. He had refused to cooperate with investigators unless they sought the death penalty.


Death Penalty In 2012: Seven Significant Signs

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.


Ohio's Death Penalty Needs A Time-Out

Tyrone Noling

Tyrone Noling

Following the news of the nation’s 140th death row exoneration, which was also Ohio’s 6th, comes a story in The Atlantic about another disturbing case in the Buckeye State.  Tyrone Noling remains sentenced to die despite:

  • No physical evidence against him
  • Recanting witnesses who may have been coerced
  • An alternative suspect who seems to never have been thoroughly investigated
  • The state refusing to support a DNA test that might shed light on the accuracy of the conviction.

You know, the usual stuff.

Ohio has 13 executions scheduled, but wrongful death sentences, botched executions like that of Romell Broom which have led the courts to harshly admonish Ohio officials, expressions of concern from a state Supreme Court judge and a former Attorney General (authors of Ohio’s death penalty law), and from a warden who oversaw 33 executions, all suggest that the state could use a time-out.


Ohio Produces Nation's 140th Death Row Exoneration

Joe D’Ambrosio is free.  He spent more than 20 years on death row, and almost two more years waiting while the state of Ohio – whose prosecutors had withheld key evidence from his defense – tried to go after him again.  Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court closed the book on his case.  Joe D’Ambrosio is the 140th person exonerated from U.S. death rows since 1973, and the 6th from Ohio.

Is this exoneration an example of the system working?  Hardly.  Mr. D’Ambrosio’s exoneration came about because of a chance meeting with a Catholic priest who was visiting another inmate.  The priest, Rev. Neil Kookoothe, happened to have legal training and decided to look into the case himself.  As Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, put it: “Coincidence is not the standard we should be comfortable with when our justice system is seeking to execute people.”


Give Thanks For Halting Of Oregon Executions

On Tuesday, November 22, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon declared a moratorium on all executions in his state.   Among other things, he said:

I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.” And: “I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values. “ (It is definitely worth reading the entire statement.)

And, while you’re at it, take a little time to thank this Governor for his unusually heartfelt action.

This is the first governor-imposed moratorium on executions since Governor George Ryan halted executions in Illinois in the year 2000.  There the issue was innocence (13 exonerations at the time compared to 12 executions); here, one of the issues is “volunteers”.  Both Oregon’s post-reinstatement executions have been of men who chose to give up their appeals, and Gary Haugen, scheduled for execution on December 6 was actively pursuing his own death.  Governor Kitzhaber called the execution of those voluntarily seeking to be killed a “perversion of justice.”


Will North Carolina Halt Executions?

Following the release of a devastatingly critical report on the shoddy work of North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime labs, Seth Edwards, the president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys today said he “supported a moratorium on the execution of any death-row inmates whose cases include evidence from the State Bureau of Investigations crime labs.”

The fallout from the audit of the SBI, combined with the fact that 152 death row inmates in NC are now challenging their death sentences under the new Racial Justice Act, paints a picture of criminal justice and capital punishment systems in chaos.  And that may be a good thing.  At least the Tar Heel state (unlike some states)  has been somewhat willing to look critically at its systems of justice.   

But this bout of self-examination should only be the beginning.  The state’s investigation of the SBI was not comprehensive (only the serology lab was looked into; the SBI’s performance in other areas – fingerprints, DNA , ballistics, drug analysis, documents and digital – has yet to be reviewed).  The Raleigh News and Observer’s recent hard hitting series provides some idea of what might be found if all those rocks were turned over.  To their credit, NC DAs have demanded a full audit of the SBI.  

Because executing someone wrongfully would be the ultimate injustice, it is imperative that NC take a second look at all death row cases, including those who have already been executed.   Seth Edwards’ suggestion for a partial moratorium is fine, but really all executions should be halted.  And really, they should be halted permanently.

Republican Judge: Few Proud that Ohio is Like Texas

JusticeScalesIn the rankings for the most executions per state, Ohio is starting to give Texas a run for its money.  But it appears there may be a whiff of change in the air. This weekend, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, the “father of Ohio’s death penalty,” told the Columbus Dispatch that all current death row cases should be reviewed to see who truly deserves an execution.  He would like the less severe cases commuted to sentences of life without parole.

“There are probably few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas,” said the judge, a Republican who has been elected to his current post three times.  Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1981, Ohio has executed 38 prisoners, while five death row inmates have been exonerated.  Currently, there are 161 inmates on Ohio’s death row, and executions have been taking place at the rate of about one per month.  8 are currently scheduled through March 2011.

Judge Pfeifer, though instrumental in reviving Ohio’s death penalty as a State Senator in 1981, has reiterated to the press that capital punishment does not serve as a deterrent, and the only reason it is still in place is that “society demands retribution.” Now, Judge Pfeifer suggests that the next Governor appoint a blue ribbon commission to re-examine which inmates should be executed and which should have their sentences commuted to life. 

Certainly, there would need to be a moratorium on executions while a commission examines all the cases.  So why wait?  The current Governor, Democrat Ted Strickland, working with this Republican Supreme Court Justice, could and should appoint such a commission and declare a moratorium on executions in Ohio right now.

Get Well Soon … So We Can Kill You

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a former prison psychologist, admits that he recognizes the irony.  His state is keeping Lawrence Reynolds alive, on suicide watch, so they can execute him Tuesday morning.  Reynolds attempted suicide by overdosing on pills on Sunday and was rushed to the hospital where his life was saved.  The Governor postponed his execution, original scheduled for March 9, to give him sufficient time to recover so that the Buckeye state can kill him properly.

“It is ironic, obviously, that you would work to keep someone alive when they are scheduled to be executed,” the Governor said.  “Ironic” may be putting it mildly.  When you adopt a policy (state killing) that directly contradicts basic values (life is precious), absurd and morally dubious practices like this are inevitable.

What is ironic is that, back in May 2007, the state of Ohio executed Christopher Newton, who volunteered” to be put to death by giving up his appeals.  He even refused to cooperate with those investigating the crime he committed unless they promised to seek the death penalty.  The state of Ohio was surely assisting Newton in committing suicide on that day, though they nearly botched it by taking 90 minutes to find a vein to administer his lethal injection.

(Nationally, there have been 135 of these “voluntary” executions, representing over 10 percent of all executions since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.)

The Governor’s lame excuse for this current predicament is that his government is required to “observe the law as we understand it.”  Of course, the law also allows the Governor to commute death sentences, or even impose a moratorium on all executions in his state, as many, including Amnesty International, are urging him to do.

Ohio Needs a Moratorium on Executions Now

The death penalty is always inhumane, but Ohio’s failed attempt to execute Romell Broom on September 15th was particularly disturbing.  During the two-hour ordeal the execution team repeatedly attempted and failed to find a useable vein in which to insert the lethal injection needle, and eventually had to give up.  Mr. Broom’s execution has been stayed, but Lawrence Reynolds, Darryl Durr, and Kenneth Biros are still scheduled to be put to death before the end of this year. Mr. Reynolds lawyers have filed for a stay of execution, pointing out that this latest failed execution attempt is further evidence of “a pattern of serious problems with the administration of lethal injection in Ohio.”  While the victims of these crimes and their families always suffer greatly, the perpetuation of violence through the death penalty is never the most constructive way to handle such tragedies.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique; in Ohio alone there have been at least two other poorly handled executions over the last three years. In May of 2006, it took the Ohio execution team nearly half an hour to find a useable vein in condemned prisoner Joseph Clark’s arm, and then that vein collapsed, causing Clark’s arm to swell. The witnesses reported hearing “moaning, crying out and guttural noises” coming from behind the curtain while the execution team continued to try for 30 more minutes to find another vein. It wasn’t until an hour and a half after the execution began that Joseph Clark was pronounced dead.

In 2007 another execution team in Ohio struggled to find useable veins in condemned prisoner, this time Christopher Newton. It was again a prolonged ordeal, and Mr. Newton was not declared dead until nearly two hours after the execution process began.
Ohio state officials still have no contingency plan for these kinds of situations, and they are not addressed in the state’s lethal injection protocol. Because of this clear evidence that the state of Ohio has serious problems administering lethal injections, please tell Ohio Governor Ted Strickland to stop executions from being carried out in his state.

How Will YOU Celebrate Human Rights Day?

Now, the outgoing Bush administration’s plans for celebrating Human Rights Day ’08 can finally be revealed!  On December 10, they are going to carry out the first U.S. Military execution in 47 years, when they put Ronald Gray to death by lethal injection.  According to CNN and several other media sources, Private Ronald Gray, a former soldier from North Carolina, is set to be executed at a federal prison in Terra Haute, Indiana by Army personnel.  His execution was approved by President Bush in July.

While there is a possibility that a federal appeals court could stay the execution, the military expects it to take place as scheduled.  The last military execution was performed in 1961, during the Kennedy administration, but was approved previously by President Eisenhower

In a not un-related story, yesterday the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee voted 105-48 to continue to press for a moratorium on executions worldwide.  As the AP dryly notes, “The United States sided with countries such as Iran, China and Syria in opposing the resolution.” 

Last year, the UN General Assembly passed a landmark resolution (pdf) urging all nations to declare a moratorium on executions with an eye to complete abolition of the death penalty.  As Amnesty International noted, the vote then was 104-54, so the anti-death penalty forces have picked up another vote, and several countries have moved from “no” votes into the “abstain” column.  These included Arab nations Bahrain, Jordan, Mauritania and Oman.  A final vote of the General Assembly, almost certainly with the same result, should take place next month.

It’s just my opinion, by I think passage of this resolution would be a much more appropriate way to celebrate Human Rights Day ’08, and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, than what the government of the USA has in mind. 

Here’s another great way to celebrate Human Rights Day this year!