Articles

INNOCENCE: The Role of Journalists in Freeing An Innocent Man

The fortuitous investigation of a case by persistent journalists, rather than the workings of the limited appellate process, has led to the exoneration of a number of innocent individuals. Maurice Possley (l.), a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, recently wrote how he and fellow-journalist Steve Mills (r.) helped free Daniel Taylor (c.) in Illinois, where he had spent more than 20 years in prison. In 2001, the reporters published a story exposing the false and coerced confession that led to Taylor’s conviction, but it would be more than a decade before Taylor was freed. Evidence showed that Taylor was arrested for fighting and was in jail on the night of the murders in question. Eventually, the state discovered documents in the prosecutor’s files that had remained hidden for 19 years indicating police officers were certain Taylor was in jail and could not have committed the crime. Taylor's is among the 1,200 wrongful convictions listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. DPIC’s Innocence List includes 142 death row inmates who have been exonerated and freed. Such investigatory reporting contributed to Illinois's decision to abolish the death penalty in 2011.

False Confessions and Threats of the Death Penalty

A recent article in The Atlantic by Marc Bookman (pictured) shows how threats of the death penalty can contribute to false confessions. The piece recounts a Pennsylvania murder case in which two defendants, Russell Weinberger and Felix Rodriguez, admitted to a murder they did not commit, leading to their imprisonment for over 21 years. Rodriguez described his interrogation: "First they showed me pictures of the dead guy. I started to cry. I said I didn't do that. That's when they slapped me on the back of my head, said 'They gonna put you in the electric chair.' So I signed the statement. I knew it might be bad, but I didn't know what to do. I'd never been in real trouble before. I signed the statement 'cause they said I could go home."  Weinberger, who was intellectually disabled with an IQ between 60 and 65, at first denied involvement in the murder, but later submitted a confession after Rodriquez implicated him in the crime. Weinberger was offered a lesser sentence if he agreed to testify against Rodriguez. Twenty years later in March 2001, a prison inmate named Anthony Sylvanus (represented by Mr. Bookman) admitted to committing 5 similar murders, including the one Weinberger and Rodriguez had confessed to. Sylvanus revealed facts that only the true perpetrator was likely to know. Rodriguez and Weinberger were eventually allowed to plead nolo contendere and were released from prison after serving 21 years.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus and the Warren Hill Case

UPDATE: Warren Hill was granted a stay of execution by a Georgia court just hours before his scheduled execution on July 15. A hearing is scheduled for July 18 to consider challenges to a new state law that shields the identity of the lethal injection drug's manufacturer and the prescribing physician from the public. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 15, 2013).

As a petition on behalf of Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill awaits consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, the role of habeas corpus in protecting defendants' fundamental rights has assumed greater importance. A recent article by Lincoln Caplan in the American Prospect explores the significance of the "Great Writ." This guarantee of constitutional protections allows federal courts to determine whether an inmate is being held in violation of the Constitution or other laws, and has been used to challenge death sentences that may have been unlawful. In 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was passed by the U.S. Congress, imposing a time limit on filing such petitions and generally allowing only one such petition. Hill's recent appeal containing clear proof of his mental retardation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was denied because the court said it was a second petition and could only be considered if it related to his innocence, rather than his death sentence. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote, “The perverse consequence of such an application of AEDPA is that a federal court must acquiesce to, even condone, a state’s insistence on carrying out the unconstitutional execution of a mentally retarded person.” Hill is scheduled to be executed on July 15 unless the Supreme Court intervenes.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Texas Inmate Gouges Out Eyes, Remains on Death Row

Texas death-row inmate Andre Thomas has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and auditory hallucinations drove him to gouge out both of his eyes. Nevertheless, prosecutors still believe he should be executed. In a revealing recent essay in Mother Jones magazine, author Marc Bookman described in vivid detail Thomas's family history of mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence going back at least two generations.  A brief excerpt from the article epitomized Thomas's delusions:  "On July 14, 2008, Andre managed to procure something sharp and slash a seven-centimeter gash in his throat, requiring eight stitches. He insisted that he was the cause of all the problems in the world, and that if he killed himself all the problems would stop. The next day, he reported that he had been reading his Bible and got confused because he wasn't sure if it was the voices or his own thoughts that were telling him to kill himself. During a psychiatric assessment one week later, he explained that 'The government is conspiring to read my mind. That's why I ripped out my right eye. That's the righteous side. They can't hear my thoughts no more. I cut my throat. Gotta shed a little blood to save the world.'" In the three weeks before he killed his wife and two children, police were asked to apprehend him and bring him to a mental hospital on two separate occasions.  After Thomas removed his second eye, he was moved to a facility for mentally ill prisoners, but the state continues to pursue his execution.

How the Death Penalty Might Be Ended in California

In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, death penalty scholar Franklin Zimring suggested that the close (52-48%) vote in November on California’s Proposition 34 to end capital punishment means the repeal effort is far from over. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote, “For decades, it has been assumed that the death penalty was the third rail of California politics …. Measured against that reputation, the narrowly divided electorate on Prop. 34 is quite a surprise." He suggested two traditional ways--other than another referendum--that capital punishment might be abolished. One way involves a finding by the courts that California's law is unconstitutional: "A federal court has been considering whether the current California laundry list of aggravating circumstances is too promiscuous to meet minimum constitutional standards. If this current grab bag is struck down, the California Legislature then would have to consider whether and how to write a new death penalty statute. After courts struck down state statutes in New York and Massachusetts, the legislatures of each state decided the best course was no death penalty." A second alternative would be for the governor to declare a moratorium on executions, followed at a later time by complete abolition. Zimring concluded, “Whatever the endgame for state execution in California, the saga of 2012's Prop. 34 will have been an important step toward an outcome that now looks inevitable on the near horizon.” Read full op-ed below.

STUDIES: Reasons Behind the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Illinois

A new report by Rob Warden (pictured), Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, explores the conditions that led to the end of Illinois's death penalty in 2011. Warden says abolition came about because of a series of fortuitous circumstances, but also because of the work of countless attorneys, academics, journalists and activists who took advantage of these developments. The cavalcade of exonerations from death row, including the high-profile release of Anthony Porter, who was freed through the work of journalism students, underscored the flaws in the death penalty. Police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct caused an erosion of public confidence in the death penalty system. Finally, the report of the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee, finding that the state could have saved $200 million if it ended the death penalty in 2000, greatly impacted the movement for repeal. Warden noted that what happened in Illinois carried over to other states and said he believes, “The future of the movement [to end the death penalty] hinges on how the arguments that carried the day in Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Connecticut resonate in the thirty-three states where death penalties remain in force but have fallen increasingly into disuse.”  The report is published in the Journal of Law and Inequality.

ARTICLES: The Tensions Between Protecting the Innocent and the Objectives of Capital Punishment

A recent article in the Justice Quarterly by Professor James Acker (pictured) and Rose Bellandi of the University at Albany, New York, examined whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between recent reforms to prevent the execution of the innocent and the traditional goals of capital punishment. The authors studied recent changes to Maryland’s death penalty statute that were designed to reduce the risk of wrongful executions while trying to maintain the death penalty for the most heinous crimes.  Maryland's law requires either biological evidence of guilt, a videotaped confession, or a video conclusively linking the defendant to a murder as a prerequisite to seeking a death sentence.  The authors concluded that such a statute will not impose the death penalty on the worst offenders, but only on those whose cases contain certain evidence of guilt:  “No one supports executing the innocent. Yet, many support executing those who are guilty of heinous crimes. How to guard against the former risk while advancing the latter objective evokes special challenges, if not paradoxes of sufficient magnitude that suggest that the twin goals defy reconciliation.”  Acker and Bellandi further add that even these protections will not be infallible, and that the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment recommended abolition of the death penalty.

RACE: Commentary on the Anniversary of McCleskey v. Kemp

In an op-ed written for the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCleskey v. Kemp, nationally acclaimed death penalty expert James Acker (pictured) called for a reassessment of how race is affecting death penalty decisions. Prof. Acker questioned the Court's refusal to find bias in the wake of the strong statistical evidence presented in that case.  He wrote, "The time has surely come for a sober reassessment of this ruling" and "we must question if justice truly has been served when racial prejudices influence capital case decisions."  Acker noted that the recent case involving the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida raises the question of "how confident [we can be] that the pernicious influence of race has been expunged from punishment by death?"  Read full commentary below.

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