Executed for a crime that never occurred?

In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for setting a fire that killed his three children.  He maintained his innocence to the end, and those who looked into his case, including the Chicago Tribune, have concluded that he was in fact wrongfully executed.  His was one of the 200+ executions under Rick Perry, a governor who has remained willfully oblivious to the huge flaws in his state’s death penalty.  

Yet recently, to its credit, the Texas Forensic Science Commission reopened the case.  A nationally known fire expert, Craig Beyler, was hired to assess how Texas authorities investigated the fire.  According to the Tribune, Beyler’s report is not kind to the Texas investigators, and he determined that there was no scientific reason to believe that the fire was arson at all.  If indeed that is the case, Cameron Willingham was executed for a crime that never occurred – an exceptional cruelty for a man who had already lost his three children.

Beyler ripped the fire marshal who investigated the case, saying, according to the Tribune, that the fire marshal had “limited understanding” of fire science, “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,” and that his findings “are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

The Texas Forensic Science Commission will solicit a response from the fire marshal and then publish its final report.  If it reaches the same conclusion that this nationally respected fire expert has, the state of Texas may finally officially acknowledge that it has executed an innocent man.

Update: Leonard Peltier Denied Parole

To our deep disappointment, Leonard Peltier was denied parole on Friday, nearly a month after his July 28 parole hearing. In addition to our online action, Amnesty International had sent an open letter to the parole board in early July urging that Peltier be granted parole, and Amnesty continues to call for his immediate release on parole. You can read more about Leonard’s case in this blog post, and in the full AI press relase. The US Department of Justice also issued a lengthy press release on Friday.

Racial Justice in North Carolina: UPDATE

Today, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act into law, making North Carolina only the second state in the country to allow death row prisoners to meaningfully challenge their death sentences if racial bias is evident.  (Kentucky is the only other state that has adopted similar provisions.)

As discussed in my previous post, race (particularly race of the victim) has been a major factor in who does and does not get death sentences in North Carolina, and 35 inmates on North Carolina’s death row were put there by all-white juries

It is good to see a southern state like North Carolina take such a leadership role in directly confronting its legacy of racism and going the extra mile to ensure that its justice system (or at least its capital punishment system) is no longer infected with racial bias. The 33 other death penalty states, both northern and southern, should follow North Carolina and Kentucky’s lead; racial bias in the death penalty is a national problem.

Racial Justice in North Carolina

On July 15th the North Carolina House voted 61-54 to approve the Racial Justice Act, which, if signed into law, would allow death row prisoners in the state to appeal their sentences if racial prejudice played a role in their sentencing.   Last night, the North Carolina Senate approved the legislation, which now goes to Governor Bev Perdue for her signature.

The Racial Justice Act could be a very significant step towards ensuring that race does not affect the fate of capital defendants in North Carolina—a state with a history of racial prejudice, where race has been a factor in death penalty cases in the past.  A 2001 study conducted by Dr. Isaac Unah and Prof. Jack Boger from the University of North Carolina showed that the probability of a defendant receiving the death penalty in North Carolina is 3.5 time higher if the murder victim was white.   In some parts of the state the findings were even more disturbing.  For instance, in Durham County, prosecutors were 5 times less likely to seek the death penalty if both the defendant and the murder victim were black than if the defendant was black but the murder victim was white.   

A review by the Winston Salem Journal found similar racial discrepancies in the application of North Carolina’s death penalty.  The Journal discovered that, although the majority of murder victims in North Carolina are black, only 18 percent of the state executions carried out between 1984 and the present were of prisoners whose victims were African-American.  In contrast, four fifths of the executions were of prisoners whose victims were white.  

Another way race has played a role in death penalty cases in North Carolina (as well as across the country) has been though jury selection.  Although African-Americans constitute more than one fifth of North Carolina’s total population, between 1977 and the present 35 defendants in the state have received death sentences from all-white juries.   

In light of these discrepancies and the unequal application of capital punishment in North Carolina, passage of the Racial Justice Act is a milestone achievement.   The legislation has gained the support of clergy and civil rights leaders who have described it as “a clear signal that we are serious about removing any vestiges of racial discrimination in the administration of the death penalty.”  In a joint statement published on the website of the North Carolina NAACP Chapter, the leaders went on to say that the Racial Justice Act has the potential to “make North Carolina a leader in the southeast on a matter of great importance to anyone who believes justice should be color blind.”

All that is needed now is the Governor’s signature.

A Healthy Justice System

As Amnesty International reported yesterday the African nation of Togo became the 94th country in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, and the 15th member of the African Union to do so.
In announcing his government’s plans to push for full repeal of capital punishment at the end of last year, Justice Minister Kokou Tozoun was clear and direct:

“This country has chosen to establish a healthy justice system that limits judicial errors…and guarantees the inherent rights of the individual.  This (new) system is no longer compatible with a penal code that maintains the death penalty and grants the judiciary absolute power with irrevocable consequences.”

The vote for repeal, which passed unanimously in the Togo national assembly, is the latest act in the gradual but unmistakable trend towards worldwide abolition of the death penalty. Though only dimly visible in the U.S., where support for capital punishment is shrinking more slowly, this trend is very clear on a global scale, and it is particularly apparent in Africa. Burundi repealed the death penalty earlier this year, and Mali is reportedly considering abolition as well.

Obama, the Federal Death Penalty, and Race

The death penalty is a difficult issue for just about any politician.  Most prefer to avoid it as much as possible.  But the time may soon come when President Obama will have to take a stand on this question.  In a recent article on Politico.com, Josh Gerstein outlines the challenges that President Obama may face in the near future regarding the federal death penalty, as several cases inch a little closer to crossing his desk. Obama has previously stated that he supports the death penalty in cases that involve “heinous” crimes, but has not made it clear exactly where he draws the lines between which crimes are heinous and which are not. Attorney General Eric Holder has likewise given few clues about his specific stance on this issue. He has stated that he personally opposes capital punishment, but he has also authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in four cases since he has taken office. 

Compared to some states, the federal death penalty has been used relatively sparingly, and executions at the federal level have been halted for several years due to challenges to the constitutionality of lethal injection. In April, 2008 the Court ruled that lethal injection is constitutional, clearing the way for some pending executions to go forward. There are several cases making their way through the federal appeals process now, including the cases of 6 African Americans from the Washington area all of whom are nearing the end of their appeals. 

That all six of the inmates involved in these cases are African-American is sadly symbolic of the racial disparities inherent in the federal death penalty.  Currently there are 57 prisoners on federal death row, 35 of which are people of color, and 28 of which are African-American. According to a recent survey of the Federal Death Penalty  System, during the years 1995-2000 U.S. Attorneys recommended that the death penalty be sought in 44.3% of cases involving a black defendant, but only 26.2% of cases involving a white defendant. Also, in a 2007 report titled The Persistant Problem of Racial Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty the ACLU found that the death penalty is reduced to life sentences during plea bargaining almost twice as often for white defendants as for black defendants.

These statistics not only reflect serious racial bias on their own, but they are also disproportionate to the rest of the nation: in 2003 the United States Government, and the U.S. military, had higher percentages of non-white prisoners on their death rows (77% and 86% respectively) than any single state except Colorado.   At the beginning of this year, those figures still stood at 60% and 78%, way out of proportion with the population as a whole.

Connecticut Is Wrong To Veto Death Penalty Abolition Bill

I am extremely disappointed that Governor M. Jodi Rell today vetoed HB 6578, which would have abolished the death penalty in Connecticut.

Governor Rell’s veto of this legislation represents a missed opportunity for the state of Connecticut to extricate itself from the useless and costly boondoggle that is capital punishment.  Any other policy that wasted valuable taxpayer dollars without reducing crime or making anyone safer would have been eliminated without hesitation.

No system can be perfected enough to prevent the innocent from being sent to death row.  Recent cases have demonstrated the fallibility of Connecticut’s justice system.  In the last two years James Tillman, who was given 45 years for rape, and Miguel Roman, who was sentenced to 60 years for murder, were found to be have been wrongfully convicted.  The exonerations of these innocent men ought to make Governor Rell realize that the irreversible punishment of death has no place in a system that makes such mistakes.

This veto puts Connecticut squarely on the wrong side of history. The use of the death penalty is dropping in every state of the union, as juries pass fewer death sentences and state legislatures impose greater restrictions. Some, such as New Mexico, repeal capital punishment altogether.  An average of three countries end the use of the death penalty each year, and today more than two-thirds of nations worldwide have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

The death penalty is increasingly being acknowledged as a severe violation of human rights.  While, as the governor has argued, heinous crimes have been committed in Connecticut, the deliberate killing of a human being is never an appropriate punishment for any crime.  It is inevitable that the world will eventually outlaw this cruel practice, and it is a shame that Connecticut will not pave the way to make that happen.

A New Hope?

Nearly twenty years ago Troy Davis was convicted of killing a Georgia police officer. As has become well known, the case against him has grown weaker and weaker as seven of the prosecution’s nine witnesses have recanted their testimony, many saying that they were coerced by police. Davis’ latest stay of execution has now expired, after his application for a second habeas petition was denied, preventing him from presenting new evidence.

But late last year, the Chatham County, Georgia (the county in which Troy Davis was convicted) elected a brand new District Attorney named Larry Chisholm, who successfully campaigned on a platform to “increase the sense of fairness” in the office. If these are truly his intentions, a great way to start would be for him intervene on behalf of Troy Davis to ensure that an innocent man is not executed based on false information.

This case could be monumental in shaping the career of the new DA.  It seems clear from out here that intervening on behalf of Troy Davis would be seen as a courageous act that he could point to with pride for the rest of his political life.   But inside Chatham County, where there are powerful forces pulling him in different directions, the decision is not quite so easy.  Larry Chisolm is the first African American DA in the history of Chatham County, a county in the Deep South with a long history of racial division.  So any decision in a case involving an African American convicted of killing a white police officer, however dubious the evidence now seems, will be extremely difficult and politically charged.

Chisholm’s intentions in this case are as yet unclear. He has stated that he will not move forward with the trial until all of Davis’ appeals are exhausted, and a remaining “original” habeas petition is sitting at the US Supreme Court, reportedly due to be considered by the end of this month.  But DA Chisolm could at any time decide to re-open this tainted case, to take a closer look and find out what really happened that Summer night in Savannah almost 20 years ago.  It is important for DA Chisholm to hear from citizens across the country that re-opening this case will be the right choice.  You can take action right now to encourage DA Chisolm to do the right thing!

200th Execution under one Governor

With the execution of Terry Lee Hankins last night, Texas Governor Rick Perry has reached a pretty apalling benchmark: 200 executions in his eight and a half years as governor.  As in other states, the death penalty in Texas has proven to be ineffective as a deterrent, racist in its application, and extremely costly. Not to mention that Texas does not have a strong reputation for considering all of the evidence before going forth with an executuion: there have been at least eight executions in the last twenty years where there was strong evidence of the defendant’s innocence – five of them were from Texas. This overzealous approach to justice means that Texas sometimes fails to punish the true perpetrators of some pretty horrific crimes.  Texas has been responsible for 439 executions since the death penalty was re-applied in 1976. That’s 38% of all executions in the United States since that time.

Terry Hankins was executed by lethal injection around 6:19pm for shooting his two step children and his wife. He had also confessed to killing his father and half-sister around 2000, though he was only tried for the first three deaths.

The state of Texas is likely to continue its reckless spree of executions. Hankins was the 16th execution this year, and the state still has four more executions scheduled over the next four months, the next of which is Kenneth Mosley on July 16.

Global Day of Action for Troy Davis – Today!

Today is the Global Day of Action for Troy Davis.  Over 150 events in 45 state, DC, Puerto Rico, and 28 countries overseas have been scheduled, demonstrating as clearly as can be demonstrated that the public will not stand for the execution of a man who has had no hearing on evidence that he may be innocent.  The failure of our courts to take seriously questions of innocence is of course not limited to Troy Davis’ case, but his case is so simple – 7 of 9 witnesses have recanted their trial testimony – and the solution so obvious – an evidentiary hearing featuring said witnesses – that it is in equal parts baffling, frustrating and outrageous that Troy Davis may be once again on the brink of another execution date.

A hearing to examine and cross-examine these witnesses should not be too much to ask.

Today, a last ditch effort with the Supreme Court will be filed, but it has become clear that our courts and politicians have a supremely bureaucratic mentality towards justice; they will only take action or exercise leadership if they know they are being watched.  That is why it is so important that so many people are coming out today, to be seen and heard.  And why it is so important that we continue to do so.