Absolute Power Corrupts, Human Rights Protect

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  That’s what Lord Acton, an English baron and historian, said back in the 19th century.  A century earlier, and on this side of the pond, Thomas Paine famously wrote:  “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws.”

reggie clemmons

Reggie Clemons

One of the most absolute powers the state can have is the power to kill its prisoners.  There are two death penalty cases featured in this years’ Write for Rights that illustrate how enthusiasm for this ultimate punishment can corrupt the application of otherwise good laws.

Murder is a terrible crime, and making it illegal is a good law.  But in the cases of Reggie Clemons in Missouri, and Fatima Hussein Badi in Yemen, police brutality during the investigations, and over-aggressive prosecutions and inadequate defense during court proceedings have thoroughly derailed any legitimate quest of justice.


Reggie Clemons Needs More Letters!

This post is part of our Write for Rights series

Over 3,000 Belgian citizens have handwritten and mailed in letters appealing for at least a commutation in the death sentence of Reggie Clemons, an American who was sentenced to death in St. Louis, Missouri as an accomplice in a 1991 murder. Can YOU help that number grow even bigger, and prevent the execution of a man who has maintained his innocence for almost 20 years?

As part of this year’s Write-a-thon, Amnesty International have another chance to write for (and to) Reggie Clemons. His case illustrates many of the flaws that plague the Missouri capital punishment system—there was no physical evidence, and there were only two witnesses to the crime, both of whom offered self-serving testimony. Other disturbing factors include alleged police brutality, possible racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and (as seemingly always in death penalty cases) inadequate legal representation.  You can check out the Justice for Reggie campaign or our Reggie Clemons page for more information, including our May 2010 report.

The Governor of Missouri needs to know that executing Reggie Clemons would be a grave violation of human rights, and Reggie needs to know that he has our support as he continues to pursue justice in his case.

Reggie’s is one of 12 cases that need attention. You can help defend human rights in all these cases this December by signing up for the Write-a-thon. One letter can make a difference. With hundreds, or thousands of letters, we can make an even greater impact. Please take part in the Write-a-thon, and encourage others to do so as well.

Executions, Secrecy and the Public Right to Know

Sakineh Ashtiani is at risk of execution in Iran. Last month, her lawyer and her son were arrested, apparently for discussing her case with foreign nationals.  Her other lawyer, prominent human rights and death penalty defense lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, was hounded into exile over the summer when he refused to be silenced.

Alan Shadrake is due to be sentenced next Tuesday 9 November © Alan Shadrake

In Singapore, Alan Shadrake is now a convicted criminal because he wrote a book about capital punishment in that country.  He could be sent to prison next week.

While these episodes may be extreme, the same efforts to suppress information about the death penalty are at work here in the USA where, for instance, a state law in Missouri makes it a crime – even for journalists – to reveal the identities of those who participate in executions.

It’s the same principle of secrecy that allows Arizona and California to continue to conceal the source of their execution drugs, or for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to call for such information to be classified as a “state secret.”  The claim that such secrecy is necessary to protect executioners from harassment is incredibly weak.  Other government agencies and employees (for example, the guy at the DMV who makes you wait in line, or the city employee who gives you parking tickets) don’t benefit from such undemocratic anonymity.  The public has a fundamental right to know what a state agency is doing with their tax dollars, especially when that agency is engaged in the ultimate act of state power – the killing of a human being.

Most of us would agree (I hope) that lawyers should not be detained for publicizing their client’s case, and that no one should be punished for writing about a country’s death penalty (although that could happen under Missouri’s law).  When government is exercising its greatest power, that’s when we should demand the greatest transparency.  This is essential to ensuring accountability and preventing that power from being abused.

Instead, we are seeing, both globally and here in the USA, a disturbing trend towards imposing greater secrecy on the executions that are carried out in our name.

Bias, Misconduct and Error: Reggie Clemons and Missouri's Tragically Flawed Death Penalty

This is the bridge where it all happened at a very late hour in April, 1991 in St. Louis, Missouri.  Two young white women plunged into the Mississippi River to their deaths.  It was a horrible, senseless tragedy.  Three African American youths paid for the crime – all sentenced to death.  One has been executed, one had his sentence reduced to life imprisonment and the third, Reggie Clemons, is at risk of being executed.

Jamala Rogers, Coordinator of the Justice for Reggie Campaign, Ernest Coverson, Amnesty Midwest Regional Field Organizer, and Laura Moye at the “Chain of Rocks” bridge.

Jamala Rogers, Coordinator of the Justice for Reggie Campaign, Ernest Coverson, Amnesty Midwest Regional Field Organizer, and Laura Moye at the “Chain of Rocks” bridge.

No physical evidence.  Just two (white) witnesses, one who initially confessed to the crime, the other implicated the three (black) youths in exchange for a lesser sentence.

The tragedy of Julie and Robin Kerry’s deaths was compounded by a legal process so alarmingly unfair that justice was never really served.  And even worse, Reggie Clemons could lose his life with these issues unaddressed.  You can take action to prevent this injustice right now.

Yesterday, I visited the old “Chain of Rocks” bridge on my visit to St. Louis along with my colleagues from our Midwest Regional Office.  Jamala Rogers, a community activist and Coordinator of the Justice for Reggie campaign, filled in pieces of the story and the history of the campaign she started more than a decade ago.  We met with Reggie’s mother Vera and step-father Bishop Thomas for dinner and learned more about the story and how Reggie has been doing in prison.  Vera has been visiting her son on death row almost every week these past 17 years.  She joked about how she’d worn through cars making the drive so frequently.  Despite all that she has been through, a calm resolve shines through Vera’s gentle and gracious spirit.

Reggie Clemons

Reggie Clemons

Today, we will be in front of the old courthouse where Reggie was sentenced to death in 1993.  We will join with Amnesty International members in Missouri and our coalition partners to release our new report, “USA: Model Criminal Justice? Death by Prosecutorial Misconduct and a ‘Stacked’ Jury,” about the Clemons case.  It speaks volumes about a flawed death penalty system that ought to be abolished.


At the top of the list of issues stacked against Mr. Clemons was the brazen conduct of an overzealous prosecutor, all too common in death penalty cases which are highly politicized.  The report also discusses the “stacked” jury, which both did not represent the racial composition of St. Louis and was biased toward the prosecution.  Clemons alleged police brutality during his interrogation by police, and his defense attorneys clearly did not prepare adequately for his trial.   There was no physical evidence linking Clemons to the crime, only the two witnesses, both of whom were initially charged in the crime, and at the end of the day Clemons was only convicted as an accomplice.  Yet he sits on death row.

While the number of problems in Clemons’ case may seem exceptional, these are issues that plague the entire U.S. death penalty.  It is all too clear how bias, misconduct and error riddle so many cases.  Over 70% of all cases across the country are reversed due to serious error and 138 people have been released from death rows since 1973 after having been wrongfully convicted.  Further, a handful of individuals may have been wrongfully executed, such as Cameron Willingham in Texas and Larry Griffin in Missouri.


State Death Penalty Debates Begin

As we move deeper into January, most state legislative sessions have begun.  The unifying feature in all these state legislatures is the grim economic and budget picture, but despite that, or perhaps because of that, several states will be debating the death penalty in very substantive ways.  This week, legislative committees in Kansas and Washington are considering abolition. 

The debate in Kansas is significant; their abolition bill, supported by Republican Senator Carolyn McGinn passed out of committee last year but was returned for further study.   In 2003, an official government study concluded that the death penalty in Kansas costs considerably more than the alternatives, and Kansas has not carried out a single execution since the death penalty was reinstated.

Neither has New Hampshire, and a Study Commission in the Granite State is spending this year evaluating the pros and cons of retaining a punishment that they are most likely never going to use (1 death sentence since 1959, no executions since 1939).  A bill to establish a similar study commission in Missouri has been filed, and there is likely to be serious consideration of that this year as well. 

Despite a focus in 2010 on budgets and elections, capital punishment will continue to make news in the halls of many state legislatures.  And, as in recent years (with some exceptions – Virginia, for example), the news will mostly be about efforts to restrict or eliminate the death penalty.