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
Last night, Governor Brad Henry of Oklahoma approved clemency and commuted Richard Tandy Smith’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole. Smith was found guilty of murdering John Cederlund in 1986. Upon receiving a clemency recommendation from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, Governor Henry twice postponed Smith’s scheduled execution before ultimately accepting the recommendation and commuting the sentence.
Preceding to Governor Henry’s clemency approval, momentum had built in Oklahoma to see Mr. Smith spared. In a statement, the Governor said:
“I am very respectful of a jury’s verdict, the prosecutors who tried the case and the victim’s family who suffered because of the crime. However, after reviewing all of the evidence and hearing from both prosecutors and defense attorneys, I decided the Pardon and Parole Board made a proper recommendation to provide clemency and commute the death sentence.”
Given the Governor’s stated respect for the jury and the victim’s family, and given that those arguing for clemency included six trial jurors and the victim’s brother, this grant of clemency may not be too surprising.
Henry has now granted clemency to three death row inmates. On four other occasions, he has rejected clemency recommendations from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, and there have been 37 executions in Oklahoma during his term as Governor.
The votes have come in and the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board decided by three votes to two to recommend that Governor Brad Henry commute Richard Smith’s death sentence. Because this recommendation is nonbinding, it is vital that we continue speaking out in the name of justice for Mr. Smith. Governor Henry has received six previous recommendations for clemency for death row inmates from the Pardon and Parole Board since he has taken office on January 13, 2003. Unfortunately, he has taken the Board’s advice on only two of those six recommendations.
In addition to the Pardon and Parole Board, six of the jurors who originally sentenced Mr. Smith to death have called for clemency. At the trial, these jurors never heard evidence of Mr. Smith’s harsh upbringing, addiction problems, and psychological and mental health issues, which they now cite as reasons for commuting Mr. Smith’s sentence.
Please continue to write appeals urging Governor Henry to accept the Board’s recommendation and reject the execution of Richard Smith.
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.