The Shameful Spectacle Of Georgia’s Death Penalty

warren hill

Warren Hill

Less than half an hour before he was to be put to death, and after he had taken a sedative to prepare for his execution, Warren Hill was granted two simultaneous stays of execution – by a state court on a challenge to the method of his execution, and by the federal 11th circuit court of appeals on the substantive issue of his “mental retardation.”

Warren Hill has an IQ of 70 and has been declared by a state judge to be “mentally retarded” by a preponderance of the evidence. In other states, that would mean his execution would be an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.  But not in Georgia, where a prisoner must prove his “mental retardation” beyond a reasonable doubt, a virtual impossibility given the inexact science of measuring mental disability.

Add to this the fact that the victim’s family and several of the jurors from his trial now oppose his execution, and one wonders: why is the state of Georgia – which is seeking to lift the stays – trying so hard to kill Warren Hill?  Who is this execution for?

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Pennsylvania Child Sex Abuse Victim Gets Execution Stay

Update 10/3: Terrance Williams had his stay of execution upheld. The PA Supreme Court, despite the participation of its chief judge with a flagrant conflict of interest, affirmed his stay of execution, and will at a later date consider last week’s ruling in a Philadelphia court that Williams should get a new sentencing hearing because of serious prosecutor misconduct.

The judge in that ruling cited prosecutors for suppressing evidence that Williams committed his crime in response to being sexually abused, a motive that would likely have caused the jury to issue a sentence other than death. Today the PA Supreme Court agreed to take its time reviewing that decision, and so state prosecutors will have to put the brakes on their strangely zealous pursuit of Williams’ execution – an execution the victim’s widow and 5 members of the jury don’t want anyway.

On October 3, Pennsylvania was scheduled to execute Terrance Williams. He was sent to death row for killing Amos Norwood, a man who repeatedly sexually abused him as a teenager.  Evidence of this motive appears to have been withheld from his defense.

Had the jury heard that the killing was in response to years of sexual abuse, it’s likely they would have voted for a sentence other than death. That’s why Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina has granted a stay of execution. She also granted a new sentencing hearing for Terrance Williams, writing that “Evidence has plainly been suppressed“. She also wrote that prosecutor Andrea Foulkes was “playing fast and loose.” and “had no problem disregarding her ethical obligations”.

Of course, the state may appeal this decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They shouldn’t, and this execution should be called off permanently.

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Maybe Oklahoma Should Stop Trying to Execute Jeffrey David Matthews

There is a worldwide shortage of sodium thiopental, the first drug in the three drug series most states use to put prisoners to death.  It is an anesthetic, reportedly manufactured by only one company - Hospira – and has legitimate medical uses, so one hopes that during this period of scarcity execution chambers are at the bottom of the waiting list.  This shortage probably accounts for the attempt by Oklahoma last night to substitute a different drug – Brevital, a form of methohexital sodium – for its scheduled execution of Jeffrey David Matthews.  The sodium thiopental that the Oklahoma Corrections Department had in stock was apparently past its expiration date.

Of course, the courts did not go for this, and Matthews’ execution was stayed for two months.  This is the third time Matthews’ execution has been postponed (the first two by 30-day reprieves from the Governor), and there are many compelling reasons that this stay should be made permanent.  As documented here, the case against Matthews is shaky, with no physical evidence and an investigation that involved what one investigator called “suspicious” evidence.  That same investigator has concluded that “there is a reasonable likelihood that Matthews is innocent.”  The star witness against Matthews alleges he was coerced into cooperating by a combination of beatings and threats, and has since recanted his testimony.  He now says Matthews was not involved in the crime.

Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-2 to deny clemency, and recently refused to reconsider.  The Governor is only allowed two reprieves, so there is little more he can do, officially at least.  But there has to be a way out of this mess.  Oklahoma officials should use this 60 days wisely, and find a way to once and for all stop the execution of Jeffrey David Matthews.

CSI: Texas Style

Larry Swearingen has received a stay of execution.  He was one of 14 prisoners scheduled for execution in Texas between the beginning of this year and early April.  (Of those 14, three – all African American – have already been put to death, and the other ten are all either African American or Hispanic.)

For Swearingen, forensic evidence that now raises serious doubts about his guilt seem to have swayed the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit to put the execution on hold and allow him to file a further appeal in Federal District Court.  Several forensic pathologists, including the woman who conducted the victim’s autopsy, are now saying that the time of death occurred when Swearingen was in jail for some traffic violations,  so that he could not have committed the crime.

The 5th Circuit found both that Swearingen’s defense was deficient and that the prosecutors provided “false and misleading forensic testimony.

Washington Execution Stayed

Two separate courts (a County Superior court and a Federal District court) have issued stays of execution for Darold Stenson, who was scheduled to be put to death by the state of Washington on December 3.   According to media reports, these stays will be appealed by state and county officials who are still hopeful that the execution can take place.

The Federal court’s decision was based on a lethal injection challenge, while the County court has ordered new DNA testing which might shed light on Stenson’s claims that he is innocent.  The question of the utter arbitrariness of the death penalty in Washington, which I wrote about on Monday, remains unaddressed.