Troy Davis And Our Unfixable Death Penalty

It has been over four years since Amnesty International released its first report on the case of Troy Davis.  In that span of time, three states – New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois – have abolished the death penalty, and 17 men have been exonerated from our nation’s death rows after their wrongful convictions were overturned.

Yet Troy Davis, whose innocence claim did finally get heard last summer, remains at serious risk of execution.  He was unable to prove his innocence to the standard required by the court, but the state of Georgia has been unable to remove doubts about his guilt.

It is a fact (and not a surprising one) that our criminal justice system is not perfect, and cannot resolve all questions before it, and it is interesting to note that all three governors who have signed abolition bills since 2007 cited this imperfection as a major reason for eliminating capital punishment altogether.

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Shine A Light On Worker's Rights

On April 4, 1968, shortly before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood with sanitation workers in Memphis to demand human rights, basic respect and collective bargaining to gain a better life. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are taking the same stand—together.

On April 4th people across the country will come together in support of worker’s rights and against the current assault on worker’s rights playing out in various US states.

All workers have a right to organize and to bargain collectively. Amnesty International stands in solidarity with all those seeking to defend collective bargaining rights anywhere these rights are threatened, and on April 4 we urge governors and legislators to protect workers’ rights by rejecting any attempt to limit collective bargaining.

We encourage Amnesty members to join the April 4th events and honor Dr. King’s vision for human rights. To find an event in your area and for more information visit the  We Are One website.  RSVP on Facebook here.

The Attack On US Workers' Rights

Protesters join forces to kill Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill during a rally at the Capital Building on February 18, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mark Hirsch/Getty Images)

Legislation currently working it’s way through several US states would drastically restrict workers’ rights and violate numerous laws.

States including Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee–following Wisconsin’s lead–have recently proposed bills severely limiting the collective bargaining rights of trade union members.

Shane Enright, Amnesty International’s trade union adviser said that, if adopted, these measures would violate international law:

“The US has an obligation to uphold the rights of American workers – including the specific right to organize and bargain collectively.”

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed a bill on Friday that undermines the ability of unions in the public sector to protect workers. The legislation also takes away nearly all collective bargaining rights for most public employees, limiting their negotiation rights only to wages.

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Posted in USA

Three Supreme Court Justices Later Regretted Supporting the Death Penalty

Three out of the seven Supreme Court justices who voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1976 have since said they regretted those votes and, if given a do over, would have supported abolition of the death penalty.

That means there would have been 5 votes to retain the 1970s era ban on capital punishment, and the USA could have become one of the world leaders in the global movement towards abolition, rather than one of its primary obstacles.  And 1,229 men and women would not have been killed by US states.

“I would vote the other way in any capital case. … I have come to think that capital punishment should be abolished.” –Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, to his biographer in 1991.

“From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death … the basic question – does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants ‘deserve’ to die? – cannot be answered in the affirmative.” – Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in a dissent in Callins v. Collins (1994)

“I have relied on my own experience in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes … such negligible returns to the State is patently excessive and cruel” – Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in a concurrence in Baze v. Rees (2008)

“I think there is one vote that I would change and that’s one – was upholding the capital punishment statute.  I think that we did not foresee how it would be interpreted. I think that was an incorrect decision.” – Justice Stevens to NPR this Monday

Sunday, October 10, is World Day Against the Death Penalty.  This year, the focus is on the USA, and Amnesty International has just released a short document surveying where the USA is on this issue, and what these Supreme Court Justices and the rest of us have learned.

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New Mexico Abolishes Death Penalty!

Tonight, a little after 6 PM mountain time, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed into law a bill abolishing the death penalty in his state. After weeks of publicly wrestling with the issue (he had in previous years been a supporter of capital punishment), and after several days of widely soliciting public comment – a hotline the Governor’s office set up resulted in calls coming in 3-1 in favor of abolition – the Governor agreed to strike capital punishment from the books (though the law is not retroactive, and the fate of the two men who currently occupy New Mexico’s death row is unclear).

New Mexico becomes the 15th state in the U.S. to outlaw capital punishment. Curiously, it is also the third “New” state in a row to be moved into the abolitionist column. New York’s death penalty was declared unconstitutional and its death row closed in 2007, and New Jersey abolished its death penalty legislatively, also in 2007.   The only remaining “New” state – New Hampshire – will be having a House floor debate on death penalty abolition on Tuesday, March 24, though in that state, the Governor is not wrestling with the issue at all (at least not publicly), and is unlikely to support any repeal bill.

New Mexico becomes the first Southwestern state to end its experiment with the death penalty.  Until now, abolition has been confined to the Northeast and Upper Midwest (plus Alaska and Hawaii).   Like its fellow “New” states, New Mexico rarely used its death penalty (only 1 execution since 1960 – the other “New” states never did carry out an execution after reinstating their death penalties after 1976). Other states that fit into this pattern include New Hampshire (no executions since 1939), and Kansas (no executions since reinstatement). In both these states, vital abolition efforts are ongoing.  Other states where abolition debates are heating up (Colorado, Montana, Nebraska )have carried out 1, 3 and 3 executions respectively, and Maryland has only carried out 5.

In fact, more than half the states in the country have either abolished the death penalty, or have carried out fewer than 10 executions in the last 30 years. Only 9 states carried out executions last year.

And support for capital punishment continues to dwindle.  This is reflected in the decreasing number of death sentences handed down by juries (111 last year, down from a high of 328 in 1994), and the reduced support for the death penalty in public opinion polls (a May 2006 Gallup poll revealed that Americans are evenly split between preferring the death penalty (47%) or life without parole (48%)).

Exonerations off of death row (there have been 130 since 1973), and other wrongful convictions revealed by DNA testing (there have been over 230 of those), have worn down enthusiasm for executions as the public has become increasingly aware of how mistake-prone our criminal justice and capital punishment systems can be.

Once a third-rail issue in most states, reforming or even repealing the death penalty is now mainstream politics.  Skepticism about capital punishment is making inroads everywhere, even in the South, where the vast majority of executions take place.  Texas juries are doing what juries are doing nationwide, handing down fewer and fewer death sentences (there were 11 in 2008, as compared to 48 back in 1999). And North Carolina, which has carried out 43 executions since reinstatement, had only one death sentence last year.

The U.S. death penalty will not be relegated to the history books any time soon, but as doubts about its usefulness — and doubts about its cost – persist and grow, more states may decide that it’s just not worth it to maintain capital punishment.

New Mexico Public Calls In for Abolition

Last night, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s press office issued a press release highlighting that phone calls to his hotline (505-476-2225) on the question of repealing the death penalty were running over 3-1 in favor of abolition.  The actual totals were 7169 FOR repeal and 2244 against.  The Governor has until midnight (Mountain Time) tonight to take action.  Stay tuned …

One More Step Forward

Yesterday, the New Mexico Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 in support of HB 285, the bill that repeals New Mexico’s death penalty.  This is the committee that, in the past, has killed death penalty abolition, so in advancing to the full Senate, this bill has gone farther than it ever has before

It now only remains for the full Senate to vote (possibly this week) and then for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to sign the legislation into law.  Governor Richardson has expressed at least a willingness to sign the bill, but he could always use your encouragement

New Mexico’s legislative session ends next Saturday (March 21), so whatever happens now will happen quickly.

A Comprehensive and Visionary Approach

Former President Jimmy Carter is the latest to weigh in on the death penalty repeal debate going on in New Mexico.  The AP reported that he and his wife Rosalyn wrote a letter to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson encouraging him to back abolition of the death penalty.  Referring to the package of legislation that pairs a death penalty repeal bill with two bills to support victims’ families, the letter encourages Governor Bill Richardson to endorse “this comprehensive and visionary approach.” 

According to a press release issued by the Carter Center, the letter praises “New Mexico’s leadership regarding the death penalty and the rights of crime victims.” The bills that support victims’ families include HB 211, which provides funds for families to attend court proceedings, and HB 284, which provides reparations for the children of murder victims.  Carter noted that enacting all three of these bills into law would “show states that struggle with these important issues a positive way to deal with them.”

Indeed it would, and everyone should encourage Governor Richardson to take the lead in turning New Mexico’s “visionary approach” into a reality.

Death Penalty Debate in States Heats Up

UPDATE:  The New Mexico House of Representatives passed the death penalty repeal bill, by a vote of 40-28.

Today the New Mexico House of Representatives will be debating and possibly voting on a bill to abolish the death penalty (HB285).   This is but one of a stream of bills to repeal or limit the death penalty under consideration across the country.

Yesterday, the New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held hearings on bills to abolish the death penalty (HB556) or conduct a study (HB520) of its flaws.  Also yesterday, hearings were held on an abolition bill in Washington state (SB5476). And tomorrow or Friday, the Senate in Montana is expected to vote on an abolition bill (SB236).  A week from today, the much anticipated Senate committee hearing on the Maryland abolition bill (SB279) will take place.

With the exception of Washington, these are all states where death penalty abolition was expected to be given serious consideration, and those expectations are clearly being realized.  Other states, like Washington, Kansas (where Republican Senator Carolyn McGinn filed an abolition bill (SB208)) and Colorado (where a bill to repeal the death penalty and use the money saved to solve cold cases (HB09-1274)) have also begun to have serious discussions about ending the death penalty, primarily for economic reasons.  In Missouri, where lethal injection and other snafus have brought executions to a halt in what was once a very active death penalty state, over 60 co-sponsors, including at least 13 Republicans, have endorsed a bill to establish an official moratorium on executions (HB484).

There are notable exceptions to this apparent trend.  Executions continue in Texas at their usual high rate, and the Virginia legislature has, once again, passed a bill to expand the death penalty (HB2358 and SB961) to include those involved in murders who do not actually pull the trigger.  (If history is any guide, the Governor will once again veto this legislation.)

But, all in all, important debates about the wisdom of capital punishment are occurring in a larger number of states, and the slow, steady drift away from support for the death penalty seems to be continuing.

Death Penalty Abolition in the States: It Begins

Today, the first important committee hearings on state abolition bills will be held: one in New Mexico (HB285) and one in Nebraska (LB306).  Nebraska legislators will also be considering a bill to introduce lethal injection as the method of execution (LB36), since Nebraska’s sole method of state killing, the electric chair, was declared unconstitutional last year. 

Meanwhile, the Maryland bill repealing capital punishment has also been introduced in the Senate (SB279), and there appear to be serious discussions on how to break the logjam that has held this bill up in committee in the past, with even some death penalty supporters saying that it is important that this issue get a hearing in front of the full Senate.

Stay tuned …