Executing Women In the USA

Teresa Lewis

Teresa Lewis, despite her low IQ and dependency disorder, was executed as the mastermind of a murder for hire. She was the last woman  put to death since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States.

Very few, or at least relatively few, women have been executed in the United States.  Kimberly McCarthy would have been the 13th woman put to death since reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, had her execution not been delayed at the last minute to look into the question of improper jury selection at her trial. An African American woman, McCarthy was sentenced to die by a Dallas, TX jury that was predominantly (11-1) white.

So as it stand now, out of 1,321 executions in the U.S. only 12 (less than 1%) have been women. Interestingly, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, while women are responsible for roughly 10% of murders, they receive only 2.1% of death sentences and make up only 1.8% of current death row residents, but have received over 4% of clemencies granted. Perhaps this represents yet another way the death penalty is disproportionately applied.


10 Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty

This blog post is brought to you by the number 10.  It was after 10 pm last night when Georgia put Brandon Rhode to death, less than a week after rushing madly to save his life after his failed suicide attempt.

October 10th, 2010 (10-10-10) will be World Day Against the Death Penalty, and the focus this year is on the USA.  There has never been a more important or better time to get involved in ending capital punishment in the USA, and here are 10 reasons why:

1) The death penalty is absurd and cruel.  The ridiculous spectacle of putting a man to death just days after saving his life, is a perfect illustration of that.

2) The death penalty is degrading.  It turns states into prescription drug abusers, killing prisoners with drugs like sodium thiopental that manufacturers are on record as stating should only be used to healing purposes.

3) High profile cases, often with racial undertones, create political pressures that can lead to police and prosecutor misconduct.  Reggie Clemons was convicted as an accomplice in the murder of two white women in St. Louis.  Four federal judges have agreed that the prosecutor’s conduct was “abusive and boorish,” and Clemons alleges police brutality during his questioning. Witnesses attest to Clemons’ face being swollen after his interrogation.

4) It is not limited to the “worst of the worst”.  A recent example: the execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia on September 23; she was put to death as the “mastermind” of a crime despite her 72 IQ, and despite the fact that the men who actually carried out the crime did not get the death penalty.

5) The death penalty is not limited to cases where there is no doubt about guilt.  Convicted by flimsy witness testimony, and unable to exonerate himself with those same witnesses, Troy Davis remains on death row despite serious doubts about his guilt.  His birthday is on October 9!

6) The times are changing.  In Ohio, Governor Ted Strickland granted clemency in the case of Kevin Keith, despite his belief that Keith was probably guilty, because some doubt remained.

7) In Texas, a hearing on whether Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed will take place October 6-7.  Skepticism about the application of the death penalty continues to build in the Lone Star State.

8) Death sentences continue to drop.  Last year barely over 100 were sentenced to death , compared to an average of close to 300 in the 1990s.

9) One-by-one, states are abandoning capital punishment, particularly in odd numbered years. (New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009).  In the coming year (2011), many more states will have serious debates and possibly votes on abolition

10) There is so much that can be done for World Day Against the Death Penalty, from taking action on specific cases, to joining your local state-based coalition’s efforts to abolish the death penalty.

The death penalty abolition movement is growing, and some progress is being made, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.  This World Day is the perfect time to get started.

The Great Experiment?

In a recent report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  the US touted its human rights record and argued that:

The American experiment is a human experiment; the values on which it is based, including a commitment to human rights are clearly engrained in our own national conscience…

Yet US commitment to the death penalty, which only a shrinking minority of other nations still supports, belies these grandiose words.  A commitment to executions fundamentally conflicts with a commitment to human rights.

There have been around a thousand executions since former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously declared that “the death penalty experiment has failed,” arguing succinctly that “…the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.”

A new short Amnesty International document illustrates just how pervasive these errors are, drawing just on cases from this month.  In Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and Washington state we have seen executions scheduled, and sometimes carried out, despite blatantly atrocious lawyering, clear racial bias, and defendants whose diminished capacity should have made them ineligible for the death penalty.  These cases show that our capital punishment system continues to be “little more than a lottery, with outcomes affected by issues such as prosecutorial resources, electoral politics, race, defence representation, jury composition, and so on.”

And just yesterday we saw an inmate, Brandon Rhode, rescheduled for execution three days after his life was saved following a suicide attempt.  The cruelty and absurdity, and completely arbitrary nature of American capital punishment has been on full display this month.  If the US wants its “commitment to human rights” to be taken seriously, it will have to give up its experiment with the death penalty.

The Cruelty of Killing the Intellectually Disabled

The state of Virginia plans to put Teresa Lewis to death on September 23, 2010.

How does killing the intellectually disabled give us justice?

The state of Virginia plans to put Teresa Lewis to death on September 23 for orchestrating the 2002 murders of her husband and stepson for insurance money.  Strangely, though, this so-called “mastermind” has an IQ of 72 and has been diagnosed with “borderline mental retardation”.  Further, one of the two shooters in the case admitted in 2004 that he was the true mastermind and that he determined shortly after meeting Lewis that she was “not too bright and could be easily manipulated.” And it seems that that is just what he did.  His IQ, incidentally was scored at 113.  The two shooters were sentenced to life.  Lewis, a non-shooter, was cooperative, pled guilty and now faces death.

This is the second execution date set for this month of a person whose mental capacity borders on intellectual disability.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to execute such individuals, except that these two individuals were not recognized in their legal proceedings as meeting the definition of “mentally retarded” (the outdated term used in legal-ese), which requires a look at a number of factors.  Accountability and providing justice for the sake of the murder victims is not the question here, but surely these individuals whose culpability is diminished by their mental capacity should not be executed in a humane society.

Holly Wood, an African American man in Alabama may be put to death tonight if Governor Bob Riley does not intervene.  At the crux of his case is the unsurprising issue of ineffective legal counsel.  The lawyer who represented him at the sentencing phase was a total rookie – no experience with death penalty cases, let alone criminal law.  He failed to share with the jury information about Wood’s mental impairments and as a result, this crucial mitigating factor was missing from deliberations that resulted in the decision to send him to the gurney.  While there was no question about his guilt, four federal judges in three courts, whose opinions did not carry the day, concluded that he was denied adequate legal representation.

The failure to investigate Wood’s mental disability was proof said two dissenting U.S. Supreme Court justices of “inattention and neglect.”  And so, another person goes to death row because of a system that is willing to allow poor legal representation for people facing the most severe and irreversible sentence.  Incidentally, his IQ has been assessed (post-conviction) at 64 and 59.  A reporter asked me yesterday how this score would not indicate his “mental retardation”; thus, how could Wood’s execution be constitutional?  I really don’t know.

Help us stop the pending executions of Teresa Lewis and Holly Wood by taking action today.