What Utah and Virginia Are Trying to Do to Keep The Death Penalty Will Shock You

A protester holds a sign up during an anti-death penalty protest on June 18,2001 in Santa Ana, CA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

A protester holds a sign up during an anti-death penalty protest on June 18,2001 in Santa Ana, CA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

As the death penalty declines across the US, a small number of states are taking drastic measures to keep their death chambers active.

In light of last year’s three gruesomely botched executions, Ohio and Oklahoma (responsible for two of them) are taking the precaution of putting executions on hold. But that’s a little too cautious for Utah and Virginia, two states that appear willing to do just about anything to continue executions.


Government Workers Get Wrist Slap for Illegally Exposing Information of 1300 People

Many people remember last summer when a list including the names of over 1300 supposedly undocumented immigrants was anonymously sent to addresses around Utah, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  The list included not only names, but social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, up to 200 children’s names, and even pregnancy due dates.

Virtually all of the people identified on the list had Hispanic last names, and although the makers of the list alleged that all the individuals on it were undocumented and should be immediately deported, Utah Governor Gary Herbert subsequently reported that was not the case.

The release of this list raised fears among the 385,000 Latinos in Utah and millions of immigrants and their families across the country as a vivid reminder that discrimination and menace, whether directed at a U.S. citizen, lawful resident, or undocumented person, is alive and well.


Utah's Immigrant Hit List

Last week, at least two Utah state employees were involved in distributing a list of 1,300 names of supposedly illegal immigrants. This 29-page list was sent out to Utah government offices and media and included such personalized details as social security numbers, addresses, and even pregnancy due dates. The Governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, told CNN’s John King on Friday night that those listed have Hispanic names and not all of them are in the state illegally.

While Herbert condemned the actions saying the “release of such private, sensitive information is deplorable”, it isn’t just the violation of privacy rights and the rogue behavior of public servants that makes this incident so troubling.  It is also the irrepressible undercurrent of racially-based targeting of those with Hispanic surnames as outsiders, creating a climate of intimidation and fear in communities of color and among people of foreign national origin.

As emphasized in the Amnesty Report Jailed Without Justice, all people, whatever their immigrant or citizenship status, have fundamental human rights which include the right to privacy and the right to be free from police harassment. Utah Attorney General Shurtleff  acknowledged:

“Clearly, it’s not even meant as a blacklist. It’s more like a hit list. It is, I think to put people at fear, to terrorize, to get people mobilized to do things.”

I agree. State policymakers and officials must understand that discriminatory stunts such as “listgate” don’t occur in a vacuum.  This incident has to be viewed in the larger political context of states like Utah’s neighbor Arizona rushing to adopt harsh and restrictive immigration initiatives without regard to the human rights violations involved. In fact,  no one has been able to demonstrate persuasively how it will be possible to enforce Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB1070, without resorting to racial profiling, a blatant human rights violation.

Nevertheless, without a court-issued injunction to stop it,  SB1070 will take effect next week, not only requiring police to arrest and detain anyone they reasonably suspect of being present in Arizona without a legal immigration status, but giving Arizona citizens the power to sue the police if they do not do so.  You can speak out against SB1070 by sending a message to your senators.

When governors and other public officials pass laws allowing themselves to abrogate the human rights they are otherwise obligated to uphold, it’s no wonder that state workers are emboldened to engage in lawless and discriminatory conduct that terrorizes communities. There’s simply no justification for violating human rights. What’s next? Tolerance of hate crimes?

Posted in USA

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.

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.

I Would Like the Firing Squad, Please

Ronald Lee Gardner faces execution on June 18 in Utah.  The media has zeroed in on the fact that he has chosen the firing squad as his method of execution – which seems kind of hard core and old school given the lengths states have gone through to try to make executions appear “humane”.   Gardner’s exact words to judge were: “I would like the firing squad, please.”

Utah’s firing squad carried out the first execution of the so-called “modern” era of US capital punishment, when Gary Gilmore was shot in January 1977, six months after the US Supreme Court allowed executions to restart under new death penalty statutes.   Another prisoner, John Albert Taylor, was put to death by a Utah firing squad in 1996. 

MVFMarchBut more important than Ronald Lee Gardner’s peculiar choice is the fact that the family and friends of his victim are opposed to his execution.  Gardner killed Michael Burdell, a defense attorney, during a 1985 courtroom escape attempt, but Burdell’s father, his girlfriend, and another friend all plan to testify on Gardner’s behalf if Utah’s Board of Pardons and Parole agrees to hold a clemency hearing.

State officials often claim that their support for the death penalty and executions is in part to honor the wishes and needs of victims’ families.  Will the state of Utah honor the wishes of this victim’s family and refrain from executing Ronald Lee Gardner?