Our Death Penalty: Inciting Murder And Killing Arbitrarily

Rally to abolish the death penaltyWhen Robert Gleason Jr. was put to death in Virginia on January 16 (he chose the electric chair) he became the 140th so-called “volunteer” for execution since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.  In fact, over 10% of US executions have been “voluntary,” usually meaning that the prisoner has given up his appeals.

But in Gleason’s case it was more than that. He specifically killed to get the death penalty. He strangled his cellmate and vowed to keep on killing unless he was executed.  And this is not the first time someone has committed murder in order to get the state to kill him.  In Ohio in 2009, Christopher Newton was put to death for killing his cellmate. He had refused to cooperate with investigators unless they sought the death penalty.

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Virginia Rebuked For “Abhorrent” Actions In Death Penalty Case

Justin Wolfe

Justin Wolfe

Owen Barber shot Daniel Petrole to death in Bristow, Virginia on March 15, 2001. Barber was convicted of murder and got a sentence of 60 years. In 2002, Justin Wolfe was sent to Virginia’s death row for paying Barber to kill Petrole. But did he?

Federal courts have examined Wolfe’s murder-for-hire conviction and thrown it out, with unusually strong words for Virginia officials:

“The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process.”

The problems?

  1. It was police who suggested to Owen Barber, while threatening him with the death penalty, that he name Justin Wolfe.
  2. After these capital punishment threats, Owen Barber did say that Wolfe hired him for the killing, but then recanted afterwards.
  3. Barber’s testimony was the only direct evidence linking Wolfe to the crime.
  4. The prosecution “knowingly presented false testimony by Barber.”
  5. The police report that included the death penalty threats and suggestions to name Wolfe was never turned over to Wolfe’s defense.

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NDAA is Back: House Reaffirms Indefinite Detention

stop NDAA and indefinite detentionYup, it’s that time of the year again: the sun is shining, birds are singing, school’s almost out, and elected officials are trying to take our human rights away. It’s NDAA time.

What does that mean? You have two options:

1) If you’re an NDAA junkie, and already know that the Smith/Amash effort to improve the NDAA just lost in the House this morning, then sign this action calling for repeal of Sections 1021 & 1022.

2) If you have no idea what I’m talking about then keep reading for an NDAA 101.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is an important piece of legislation passed every year to authorize defense expenditures. In and of itself, it’s not a big deal. But it often gets hijacked for other purposes (see Wikipedia entry for Pork barrel) and sometimes for really bad ones–and thus our story begins.

Last year a bipartisan group led by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) passed amendments to the 2012 NDAA that dealt with how the government detains suspected terrorists. The detention provisions, specifically Sections 1021 and 1022–signed in to law with the rest of the NDAA by President Obama on New Year’s eve while most of us were in Times Square–further entrenched indefinite detention, discrimination based on citizenship, and the paradigm of global unending war in US law.

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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.

Former Executioner Opposes Death Penalty Expansion

In a fairly dramatic development in Virginia, a bill to expand the death penalty to include accomplices (those who did not actually pull the trigger) was defeated in a Senate committee.  With a new Governor in place who was eager to sign the legislation, the bill was widely expected to pass, despite the fact that such an expansion would have greatly increased the risk of wrongful convictions and wrongful executions.

The drama came when former Virginia executioner Jerry Givens, who took part in 62 executions, testified against the bill.  Mr. Givens told the committee how traumatic the execution process is for those enlisted to participate.  Afterwards, he told the Washington Post:  “The people who pass these bills, they don’t have to do it. The people who do the executions, they’re the ones who suffer through it.”

Support for the death penalty is often inversely proportional to one’s distance from the realities of the process.  Those with first-hand experience see how traumatic and degrading it can be, while those on the sidelines cheerlead for more executions comfortable in the knowledge that they will never have to deal directly with the ugly consequences.