Jailed Without Justice: Immigrants in Solitary Confinement

A guard locks a gate inside Homeland Security's Willacy Detention Center, a facility with 10 giant tents that can house up to 2000 detained illegal immigrants (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).

A guard locks a gate inside Homeland Security’s Willacy Detention Center, a facility with 10 giant tents that can house up to 2000 detained illegal immigrants (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).

On March 25, 2013, the New York Times published an article about the use, and overuse, of solitary confinement in immigration detention. It reported that 300 individuals are held in solitary confinement while awaiting resolution of their immigration cases, including one individual who was held for four months because of his sexual orientation.

Much like the issue raised by Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration detention on March 19th, the real question is why are these individuals even detained in the first place?

As Amnesty International documented in its report in 2009, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA, individuals, including lawful permanent residents with long-standing ties to the U.S. and asylum seekers, are needlessly locked up in state and local jails and prisons for the sole purpose of appearing at immigration hearings, often without a hearing to determine whether they are a danger to the community or a flight risk.


Kirk Bloodsworth and the Demise of the Death Penalty

Kirk Bloodsworth

Kirk Bloodsworth is the first American sentenced to death row who was exonerated by DNA fingerprinting. (Photo: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/GettyImages)

The New York Times today profiles Kirk Bloodsworth, a man who once faced execution for what he describes as “the most brutal murder in Maryland history.” He was innocent, and thanks to the development of DNA testing, was proven so and freed. Equally as important, the real killer was identified.

Kirk Bloodsworth was lucky. Many inmates sentenced to die in this country do not have scientific evidence like DNA with which to prove their innocence.  Only 18 of the 142 death row exonorees over the last 40 years have been set free due to DNA evidence.  During that time, many others have been executed despite doubts about their guilt, but without testable DNA evidence that could prove their innocence to the high standard our courts require.

As long as the death penalty exists, the risk of executing the innocent will be all too real. So Kirk Bloodsworth has made it his mission to abolish the death penalty, both in his home state and – as advocacy director for Witness to Innocence – throughout the country.

Success in Maryland seems closer than ever. And across the country, as people become more familiar with harrowing stories like Kirk’s, support for and use of the death penalty continues to decline.

Race, Politics and Maryland’s Lingering Death Penalty

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley

Maryland Governor O’Malley Joins Pastors’ March on Annapolis to repeal the death penalty in Maryland in 2009.

While a New York Times editorial highlights the fact that states are “retreating” from capital punishment due to “evolving standards of decency,” very little evolution is evident in Maryland’s political circles, where a stacked Senate committee has for years been the one and only stumbling block to death penalty repeal.

As Gerald Stansbury of the NAACP writes in the Baltimore Sun, 75% of murder victims in Maryland are African American, and almost 50% of murders go unsolved each year. Yet the capital punishment system diverts a massive amount of resources to cases in which the victims were white – all 5 Maryland inmates executed and all 5 current residents of Maryland’s death row were convicted of killing white victims.

There is only one African American on Maryland’s 11 member Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (despite the state’s 31% overall African American population). As Stansbury puts it: “right now, the Judicial Proceedings Committee has jurisdiction over all criminal justice issues but fails to adequately represent those who are affected by these issues the most — people of color.”


Jon Stewart Takes on Guantanamo and the NDAA

Yesterday on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart called out President Obama and Senators Graham (R-SC), Levin (D-MI) and McCain (R-AZ) on provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would keep Guantanamo open and further entrench indefinite detention as standard US government practice.

My favorite moment is the image of Senator Graham with a gangster’s tattooed tear. You’ll just have to watch:


Troy Davis And Faulty Witness IDs

In this picture, the tiny figure in the parking lot across the street is approximately where Troy Davis was, and the camera is approximately where Dorothy Farrell was, when, according to her trial testimony, she saw his face at 1:30 am. (She, like most of the witnesses, has since recanted).

© Jen Marlowe

“[J]uries tend to ‘over believe’ eyewitness testimony”. So says the American Psychological Association in its amicus brief  for an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case.  And Adam Liptak in the New York Times writes:

“ … it is perilous to base a conviction on a witness’s identification of a stranger. Memory is not a videotape. It is fragile at best, worse under stress and subject to distortion and contamination.”


Denmark Company Supplies Major U.S. Executioners

“It is not, nor it cannot come to good.” – Hamlet

The European nation of Denmark is about to embark on executions in a big way.  Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck has sold pentobarbital to four of the most prolific executing states in the U.S.: Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.  These states already have, and will continue to use Lundbeck’s product for executions.  Pentobarbital is emerging as the replacement for sodium thiopental, which was once the drug used in all lethal injections in the U.S., but now has become increasingly hard to get.

Campaigners in Europe have attempted to convince Lundbeck to prevent the drug from winding up in U.S. execution facilities.  Lundbeck has objected, verbally, to the use of its product in executions, telling the New York TimesThis is fully against what we stand for.  We are in the business of improving people’s lives.” But so far Lundbeck has not taken any effective action.

Campaigns to limit exports of sodium thiopental, the drug pentobarbital is replacing, have been successful, albeit after several states already acquired a supply (one state, Georgia, has had its supply confiscated by the DEA).   The UK has banned the drug’s export to the U.S. for executions, and an Italian factory ceased production of the drug entirely.  Governments in Austria and Germany have preemptively warned pharmaceutical companies in their respective countries not to allow sodium thiopental to be exported to the U.S. for executions.

It remains to be seen if Denmark and Lundbeck will ultimately restrict the export of pentobarbital.

Sodium thiopental is a general anesthetic  used in surgical procedures.  Pentobarbital is used for controlling epilepsy.  Life-saving, life-improving drugs, in both cases.  Restricting their availability will do harm to the quality of legitimate health care in the U.S.

I’ve written before about the degrading nature of the death penalty; about how deliberately killing human beings violates our most basic values and thus degrades and damages everyone involved.  That ordinary Americans in need of medical care might suffer because some states insist on killing prisoners is yet more evidence of that.

Opting Out of Our Degrading Death Penalty

The news in today’s New York Times that Hospira, Inc., the only FDA approved manufacturer of the lethal injection anesthetic sodium thiopental, has decided to stop making that drug has thrown the status of U.S. executions into further disarray.  There has been a shortage of the drug for a year, delaying some executions and prompting states to take unusual and often highly secretive measures to find other suppliers.  Now it is clear that the shortage will be permanent.

It is certainly NOT good news that the production of a drug with positive medical uses has been discontinued, but pharmaceuticals (and, for that matter, human beings) are not created to kill people, so using them for that purpose is bound to cause confusion, both moral and legal. 

This ongoing saga, with states scrambling to find drugs for their executions, has only served to illustrate how degrading the whole death penalty enterprise is.  All who participate in it, from the jurors, to the lawyers and judges, to the families of the victims and of the condemned, to the prison guards and wardens, to the medical professionals and drug companies like Hospira, are dragged into a system the sole purpose of which is to kill human beings, a purpose which goes against our most basic principles of human rights and human dignity.

In this case, Hospira has opted out, reiterating in its statement that capital punishment is “a use Hospira has never condoned” for their drug, and lamenting that “our many hospital customers who use the drug for its well-established medical benefits will not be able to obtain the product.”

Exiled from Oklahoma

Sometimes the best defense is no defense.  That may be the moral of the story by Dan Barry in yesterday’s New York Times about James Fisher, who accepted a plea deal that freed him from death row after almost three decades behind bars, on the condition that he leave Oklahoma and never return.

This doesn’t mean he was guilty of the crime for which he was sentenced to die; after two grotesquely unfair trials, he had simply lost faith in the system’s ability to defend his rights.  And no wonder. 

The victim of the 1982 murder was a man who had allegedly solicited sex with Fisher, but Fisher’s trial attorney, E. Melvin Porter, has admitted that at the time “he considered homosexuals to be ‘among the worst people in the world.’”  He did nothing but undermine his client.

Fisher’s conviction and death sentence were overturned due to ineffective assistance of counsel (after 19 years), but his new lawyer at retrial, Johnny Albert, drank, abused cocaine and threatened Fisher (his own client) with physical violence.  Fisher stopped coming to the trial and was again convicted.

That conviction was also overturned for the same obvious reason, but rather than go through a third trial, Fisher accepted the deal and is now headed to greener pastures in Alabama, with the support of the Equal Justice Initiative

To get to something close to the truth, our adversarial system of justice requires a reasonably level playing field between prosecution and defense.  In reality, this almost never happens.  Particularly for poor defendants, the deck is almost always stacked against them, as court appointed lawyers are often overworked, underpaid and under-resourced, and, for complex capital cases, lacking in experience. 

Obviously not all residents of our nation’s death rows had legal representation as appalling as Fisher’s, but the vast majority of those sentenced to death could not afford their own lawyer at trial.  The failure to provide adequate defense for those the state is trying to kill is a national scandal, and yet one more reason the irreversible punishment of death should be stricken from the books.

Paying for a Lawyer's Mistake with Your Life

Should a client suffer the consequences because his lawyers screwed up?  Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for the New York Times, wrote an interesting piece today about a new petition that asks this rather basic question.  In this case, the consequences are plenty severe, since the client in question – Cory R. Maples – is facing execution in Alabama.

Bad lawyering is one of the main reasons people end up on death row, rather than serving lesser sentences, but the bad lawyering in this case extended into the appeals process, when the high-priced law firm handling Mr. Maples’ appeal failed to meet a filing deadline due to a mailroom snafu. Should someone facing death be denied his chance to appeal because of poor communication in the bowels of some law firm’s New York offices?

There will always be a conflict in our justice system between the need to respect processes and procedures like filing deadlines, and the need for flexibility to ensure that verdicts and sentences are fair and accurate.   But lately, process and procedure have been getting the upper hand.

Our system’s rigid obsession with process may have reached its zenith in 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that an appeal could not be heard, even though it was only late because a judge had given attorneys the wrong deadline.   This was not a death penalty case, but in the ruling Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that didn’t matter.   He noted that a man (Ryan Heath Dickson) had been executed earlier that year without the Supreme Court ever looking at his petition, because it had been filed one day late.  “The rejected certiorari petition was Dickson’s first in this Court, and one can only speculate as to whether denial of that petition would have been a foregone conclusion,” Justice Thomas observed remorselessly.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court seemed to show a little more heart, giving Florida death row inmate Albert Holland the chance to show that extraordinary circumstances out of his control (lawyer negligence) caused a filing deadline to be missed.  We will see this Fall what the Supreme Court decides to do with this latest case.

Justice has to be more than mindlessly following a set of inflexible bureaucratic procedures, and inflicting death on someone because his lawyer committed some procedural error is not justice at all.

Rally in DC on Tuesday to Demand Justice for Sri Lanka


Just a few months ago, the New York Times ranked Sri Lanka as the top place to visit as a tourist in 2010. While Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, the article failed to mention the outstanding issues that remain one year after the end of the conflict. Issues such as the failure by the Sri Lanka government to investigate violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by both Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE.

So join us on Tuesday, May 18th, to rally outside the Sri Lanka embassy in DC. The rally will kick off our four-month global action asking for an international, independent investigation into war crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

Where: Embassy of Sri Lanka, 2148 Wyoming Ave, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20008

When: Tuesday, May 18th.

Time: 12:00-1:00 pm

And keep reading our blog in the next few months to find out more about the campaign and what Amnesty is doing to ensure justice for the survivors of Sri Lanka’s conflict.