Sloppy and Suspicious in Oklahoma

Jeffrey David Matthews was slated for execution on June 17, 2010, for the 1994 murder of Otis Earl Short, his great uncle. Governor Brad Henry granted a reprieve until July 20, and then, last week, stayed the execution again until August 17, in order to allow the authorities more time to review fingerprint evidence – evidence that was discovered just 10 days before this first execution date.

From the start of the trial process, the conviction of Matthews has been controversial.  There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and the quality of the police investigation into the crime was, according to one former officer, “sloppy” and “suspicious.” There is also a star witness who has recanted his trial testimony. (Sound familiar?)

When Matthews was tried in 1995, Tracy Dyer testified against him, and the jury sentenced Matthews to death.  But a year later, in 1996, Dyer retracted his testimony, now denying that Matthews had been involved in the murder. Dyer admitted to his own role in the crime, and that an unnamed accomplice shot Earl Short. He stated that he had testified against Matthews in order to avoid a death sentence, and also that guards had beaten him in jail and threatened him with further violence or death if he did not cooperate in the case against Matthews. In the 1999 retrial, despite Dyer’s new testimony, Jeffrey Matthews was again convicted and sentenced to die.

But in 2007, Michael Mars, a former Deputy Sheriff involved in investigating the crime signed a sworn affidavit saying that “there is a reasonable likelihood that Matthews is innocent”.  He also backed up Dyer’s claims about threats and violence in prison, stating “I can attest that I have seen a detention deputy both physically and verbally abuse prisoners many times.”

Putting Jeffery Matthews to death would be a travesty.  Executive clemency exists to prevent miscarriages of justice that the courts fail to address.  After such a “sloppy” and “suspicious” investigation, and with such clear doubts about Matthews’ guilt, Governor Henry should grant clemency and commute the death sentence.

UPDATE to An Ongoing Cycle of Violence

The cycle has ended, at least in this case.  Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen today commuted the death sentence of Gaile Owens who had been scheduled for execution on September 28.  She was sentenced to death for soliciting the murder of her husband, but her case garnered widespread publicity because of severe abuse she had endured at his hands.

Governor Bredesen cited similar cases as his reason for granting clemency, stating:

As heinous as the crime was, the record of how Tennessee has dealt with similar cases over the last century makes it clear that her death would have been a terrible miscarriage of justice.

Gaile Owens could be eligible for parole as early as 2012.

An Ongoing Cycle of Violence

On September 28, 2010, Gaile Owens, a 57-year old mother and grandmother, is set to be executed in Tennessee – she would be the first woman executed since 1820 in the state. She was convicted of soliciting the murder of her husband, Ronald Owens, more than 24 years ago. But since the conclusion of the trial, evidence has emerged that Gaile Owens endured severe abuse at the hands of her husband, and may have been suffering from “Battered Women’s Syndrome.”  

When Owens was arrested in 1985, she was appointed a lawyer who helped out at the beginning of the case but soon had to withdraw, leaving Owens with two other attorneys. The first lawyer though, signed an affidavit in 2009 recalling Owens’ state of mind the day after the arrest:

[Gaile was] extraordinarily remorseful for hiring someone to kill her husband. But her most immediate and profound concern was the well-being of her children. Ms. Owens was clear – she wanted to plead guilty and avoid a trial because she didn’t want to put her children and the rest of her family through any more pain…Ms. Owens was also immediately forthcoming with me regarding her motivations for hiring someone to kill her husband – her husband was abusive and cheated on her regularly. Based on the information she provided, I immediately recognized that the defense in this case should be that Ms. Owens suffered from battered women’s syndrome. Based on that, I believe this case should never have been a death penalty case.

Gaile Owens did indeed agree to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but was not allowed to do so because Sidney Porterfield, the man she hired, did not accept the agreement. Both were sentenced to death.

Gaile Owens has received support of organizations such as the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women and the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. They have called for her sentence to be commuted because:

Gaile Owens was a victim of serious abuse at the hands of her husband, including brutal sexual assaults… As organizations that work with victims of abuse, we are particularly appalled by the inadequate investigation and presentation of Ms. Owens’ psychosocial history by her trial attorney, and throughout the case. Ms. Owens was not examined by professionals with the expertise the case required, nor was relevant information presented (at all or as fully as needed) about the abuse she experienced over lifetime.

Putting Gaile Owens to death would do nothing now but make the state and people of Tennessee active participants in an ongoing cycle of violence.  If ever there was a text book case for a Governor to grant clemency and commute a death sentence, this is it.

Kevin Keith and the Witness Who Wasn't There

A man faces execution despite a strong claim of innocence.  With a conviction based on deeply flawed witness testimony, and emerging evidence pointing to an alternative suspect, doubts about his guilt continue to grow.   Yet Kevin Keith is scheduled to be put to death by the state of Ohio on September 15.  He has a clemency hearing on August 11, and he is still hoping for a court to grant him a new trial, but time is slipping away.   It is important to ACT NOW! 

Amnesty International opposes all executions, but even death penalty supporters should be concerned when serious claims of innocence have not been heard, and serious doubts about guilt have not been resolved.

Kevin Keith has been on death row since 1994, when he was convicted of the murders of Marichell Chatman, Marchae Chatman, and Linda Chatman. The night of the shooting, Marichell’s two young cousins, who were also shot, survived. One of them, Quanita Reeves, told the police that the gunman was one of her father’s friends and not Kevin Keith.

The prosecution’s case relied on the nurse of a third survivor, Richard Warren.  Police testified that the nurse, Amy Gimmets, said that Warren had given her the name ‘Kevin’. Slight problem:  in 2007, through a comprehensive search of hospital and Ohio records, it was discovered that Amy Gimmets never existed. Amy Whisman, Warren’s actual nurse, was not told who the gunman was, and Richard Warren initially told four people he did not know who the killer was.  Kevin Keith’s attorneys have looked into Warren’s identification of Kevin Keith, and concluded that it was tainted by many factors, including a highly suggestive photo line-up where Mr. Keith’s face appeared larger than the others.

No court has ever had the entirety of new evidence before it. Some of the new evidence has been time-barred and therefore has never, and may never, be heard on its merits by any court. If Kevin Keith does not get the new trial he deserves, it is imperative that he be granted executive clemency.  No one should ever be executed, but, surely no one should be executed under these circumstances.

This Week in Pointless Executions

On Monday, June 14th, Ronnie Lee Gardner was denied clemency by the Utah Board of Pardons and Paroles.  Much of the attention since, and really before, has been on Gardner’s chosen method of execution – the firing squad. 

Yet there are many other issues that we should not lose sight of in our morbid fascination with old timey methods of state killing.

Following the Utah Board’s decision, Gardner’s attorneys filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court questioning the fairness of the clemency process, because the state Attorney General’s Office was simultaneously pursuing Ronnie Gardner’s execution while serving as legal advisor to the Board.

In addition to the civil rights suit, three jurors from Gardner’s trial in 1985 have come forward and signed statements expressing that they no longer support his execution.  One juror, Pauline Davies, wrote that she “felt coerced into voting for death.”

Another juror, Colleen Cline, in a phone interview said, “I think we all would have gone for life without parole if that had been an option. But in the state of Utah, it was not an option at that time.” Instead the jurors were forced to choose between capital punishment and a life sentence with the possibility of parole.  Gardner, who has the support of friends and family of the victim and who has spent 25 years on death row, faces execution this Friday, though there is still a chance Utah’s Governor could intervene. Amnesty International is urging him to do so

On Tuesday, June 15th David Lee Powell was executed in Texas for the murder of a police officer committed in May 1978. He had been on death row for more than half of his life.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted against clemency, unanimously rejecting Powell’s powerful case of rehabilitation and change. He was in the midst of a methamphetamine addiction when the crime occurred, but Powell cleaned up in prison where a noted psychologist stated, “David Powell ha[d] an exceptional ability to reach out and educate others. He [could] trace his own untoward footsteps and paths with great clarity and wisdom.” Powell’s years in prison changed him and it became clear that he no longer posed a danger to anyone and no longer qualified for execution under terms of “future dangerousness“.  Texas was given a chance to change as well and grant clemency for once, but the execution was carried out as scheduled.

People can change. Will Texas?

That’s the title of Amnesty International’s short report on David Lee Powell, a man who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on June 15 despite demonstrating great remorse and having been a model inmate for the 32 years he has been in prison. David Powell was sent to Texas death row for killing Austin police office Ralph Ablanedo in May 1978. In the midst of a methamphetamine addiction when the crime occurred, Powell cleaned up in prison. Included in Powell’s clemency petition is a statement from an Austin police officer who states:  “… the man who will be put to death for the killing of Ralph Ablanedo is not the man who committed the crime.”

In Texas, death sentences hinge on a concept called “future dangerousness”; that is, the jury has to determine whether or not the defendant will commit violent crimes in the future. If they decide he will, then, and only then, can they sentence him to death. Clearly, once off drugs, David Lee Powell has not been a danger to anyone and no longer qualifies for execution.

The problem with the death penalty (well, one of the problems) is that it doesn’t allow for the fact that people can change and improve. In fact, it cancels out the very possibility of human redemption. Capital punishment is based on a depressing philosophy that bad people (or people who do bad things) will always be bad. Certainly, human beings are capable of doing terrible things, but they are also capable of doing remarkable good, or at least doing better, if we don’t execute them first.

One of the purposes of executive clemency is to consider factors like this (remorse, redemption) that are out of the purview of the courts. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has a chance to recommend clemency in David Powell’s case, and assert on behalf of the people of Texas that, yes, sometimes people can change.

UPDATE: Board Schedules Clemency Hearing in Utah

The Utah Board of Pardon and Parole  has agreed to hold a two-day hearing for Ronnie Lee Gardner, to determine if should receive clemency.  The hearing is set for June 10-11; Gardner’s execution date is June 18, and he has chosen the firing squad as the method with which he wants to be killed. 

Family and friends of the victim oppose the execution and are expected to participate in the hearing and urge the Board to grant clemency.  The Board will also hear expert testimony about Gardner’s dysfunctional background – evidence that was not fully presented to the jury. 

Amnesty International welcomes the Board’s decision to hold this hearing, and urges the Board to grant clemency.

Clemency Granted in Oklahoma Case

Oklahoma SealC232Last 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.

UPDATE: Oklahoma Board Votes for Clemency in Death Penalty Case

Oklahoma SealC232The 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.

Six Jurors Oppose Oklahoma Execution

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.