Harmful Errors: Texas Approaches Its 500th Execution

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an "X" or the word "Executed" indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an “X” or the word “Executed” indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

On July 30, 1964, the state of Texas executed Joseph Johnson Jr. He was one of the 21 African-Americans put to death in the Lone Star State in the 1960s, out of 29 executions overall. But his was also to be the last execution in Texas for 18 years.

In the late 1960s, executions in the United States dwindled and in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all U.S. death penalty laws. New death penalty laws were permitted in 1976 and executions resumed the next year. However, it was not until late 1982, more than 18 years after Johnson’s execution, that Texas would restart its machinery of death.

Since then, Texas has been responsible for, by far, more executions than any other state. On June 26, Texas is scheduled to put Kimberly McCarthy to death – in the process carrying out its 500th execution since reinstatement.

The continued high use of the death penalty in Texas (though at a lower rate than in the so-called “zero tolerance” (1990s), flies in the face of the overall U.S. trend, which has seen death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment dropping steadily. Texas itself is not immune from that trend, as death sentences in the Lone Star State are now at historic lows.

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California Death Penalty Hangs On (Barely)

Witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville,Ohio

CAROLINE GROUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

By a narrow 52.7%-47.3% margin, California voters have chosen to retain their state’s death penalty.  This represents a 19% decline in support for capital punishment from the 1978 referendum that enacted the current death penalty law. At that time 71% voted for the death penalty.

The need to end the killing of prisoners and redirect resources in a more useful way (like investigating the 46% of murders that go unsolved in California each year) brought together a wide array of advocates, from human rights and civil liberties groups like Amnesty International and the ACLU, to murder victim family members, to death row exonerees, to a former warden of San Quentin and former top proponents of the 1978 ballot initiative.

As Rose Seward, who survived an attack from a serial killer who killed 5 other women, wrote just two days before the vote: “How can we say with credibility that murder is abhorrent, an abomination, and then turn around and commit the act ourselves?

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Who Deserved To Die This Week?

witness viewing room death penalty

Execution viewing room for witnesses © Scott Langley

On Tuesday, Jared Loughner, who murdered 6 people and wounded a Member of Congress and a dozen others in an Arizona shooting spree, accepted a plea bargain that will result in multiple sentences of life without parole.

That same evening, Texas put to death Marvin Wilson, a man with a 61 IQ and the mind of a 7 year old.

On Wednesday, Arizona executed Daniel Cook, a man who endured horrific physical and sexual childhood abuse practically from the day he was born. The man who prosecuted Cook argued for clemency, but no one listened.

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Connecticut Death Penalty Abolished! (California Next?)

death penalty abolished in connecticut

With his signature, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law the repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty, making his state the 17th, and the 5th in the last 5 years, to do away with capital punishment.  The law is not retroactive, so 11 men remain on Connecticut’s death row.

It is surely a sign of progress for the death penalty abolition movement that such a success could occur in the midst of contentious and escalating election year politics.  Previous legislative repeal victories have occurred during the more sedate odd-numbered years (New Jersey, 2007; New Mexico, 2009, Illinois, 2011).

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Connecticut’s Death Penalty Repeal Bill Going To The Governor!

The Connecticut House of Representatives, by a vote of 86-62, has approved the bill abolishing that state’s death penalty.  It will now go to Governor Dannel P. Malloy for his signature.

With Connecticut set to join, there will soon be 17 states (plus Washington, D.C.) in the abolitionist club.  Five years ago, there were only 12.

And other states seem likely to follow in the near future.  Maryland already has a majority in its legislature that supports repeal.  Oregon now has a Governor-imposed moratorium on executions.  Montana and Colorado, with just two and four people on their respective death rows, have been close to ending their death penalties in recent years.  New Hampshire and Kansas have had no executions since 1939 and 1965 respectively.  And in California, some 800,000 citizens have endorsed a November 2012 ballot initiative that would replace their state’s incredibly expensive death penalty.

Governor Malloy is expected to sign Connecticut’s bill into law soon.

Paying Respect to the Kerry Sisters

The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

I have never been numb to the loss of human life in murder cases, though my work to end the death penalty has meant that I have spent most of my time trying to prevent the executions of those who are convicted of murder.  The story of the 1991 “Chain of Rocks Murder Case,” as it is known in St. Louis, is especially poignant to me not just because I am working to stop the execution of Reggie Clemons—a man convicted as an accomplice to the murders and given the death penalty—but because I also have much in common with the two young women who perished.

I am not a family member of a murder victim, and I have no real connection to Julie and Robin Kerry, the women who died twenty-one years ago.  So I am grateful to Jeanine Cummins, one of their cousins, for having written about Julie and Robin Kerry, and the terrible journey their family experienced.  Her writing has helped me build a larger picture of the meaning of this case and the people it has impacted. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Connecticut Victim Families Fight for Death Penalty Abolition

against the death penalty

(c) Scott Langley

A bill to repeal Connecticut’s death penalty was introduced on Wednesday.  It has an excellent chance of passing, largely because an increasing number of murder victim family members have been calling for an end to capital punishment in their state.  There’s a blog on which many of them discuss their reasons, and this piece in the New London Day and this piece in the West Hartford News both do a good job of outlining why so many murder victim family members have had it with Connecticut’s death penalty and believe they will be better off without it.

There are many reasons victim family members may oppose the death penalty.  There is the endless process that turns the killer into a celebrity while forcing the family to constantly relive the worst moment of their lives.  There is the waste of resources that could be spent on counseling and other real support for survivors of homicide.  And there is the false promise of an execution which will most likely never happen (especially in Connecticut where there has been only one execution in the last 50 years) and may not provide the expected “closure” even if it does.

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2011: Five Good Signs For Death Penalty Abolition in the US

stop the execution death penalty protesters

© Scott Langley

Given the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street”, Time Magazine has dubbed “The Protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. Seems fitting enough, but someday we may also look back on this past year as a turning point in the history of death penalty abolition in the U.S.

On September 21, the crowds amassed around the world to protest the killing of Troy Davis were the most visible sign that opponents of capital punishment were turning up the volume.  But that wasn’t the only sign. Throughout the year more and more voices from across the U.S. spoke out against the death penalty.

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Death Penalty Downward Spiral Continues

Exonerated Gary Drinkard death penalty

Gary Drinkard was on death row in Alabama for 6 years before he was exonerated. © Scott Langley

As we approach the end of another year, the time for annual reports is at hand.  For the death penalty, this means the yearly report from the Death Penalty Information Center, as well as the year-end report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.   Both reports show that in 2011 the downward trends we have been observing for several years in the United States continued or even accelerated.

Texas carried out its lowest number of executions (13) since 1996.  Nationwide, the 43 executions carried out represented about half the number that were put to death in the year 2000, and U.S. death sentences dropped well below 100 for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

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Don't Let Georgia Kill Troy Davis

Troy DavisThe day is now here – the state of Georgia has set Troy Davis’ execution date for September 21st.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his final appeal earlier this year.  But the story remains the same – Troy Davis could very well be innocent.

However, in the state of Georgia, the Board of Pardons & Paroles holds the keys to Troy’s fate.  In the days before Davis’ execution, this Board will hold a final clemency hearing – a final chance to prevent Troy Davis from being executed.

Davis was convicted on the basis of witness testimony – seven of the nine original witnesses have since recanted or changed their testimony.

One juror said in a CNN news interview:

“If I knew then, what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on death row.”

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