Articles

ARTICLES: "Selective Empathy" at Issue in Recent Supreme Court Opinion

Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court writer for the New York Times, recently wrote about the reversal of a death sentence by the U. S. Supreme Court. The Court overturned George Porter Jr.'s death sentence because of the inadequate representation he received and the powerful mitigating evidence in Mr. Porter's life that his attorney failed to investigate and present to the jury considering his client's life.  The Court's opinion noted, "Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did." Ms. Greenhouse's article contrasted this ruling with one handed down last month in the case of Robert J. Van Hook, who also claimed inadequate counsel. In his case, the Court overtuned a federal appeals court's grant of relief, concluding that Van Hook's lawyer made "professionally reasonable" decisions regarding his case. Van Hook was also a military veteran, and like Porter, was also a product of a violent and abusive childhood.

Greenwood writes, "Setting the Porter and the Van Hook cases side by side, what strikes me is how similarly horrific the two men’s childhoods were - indeed, how common such childhoods were among the hundreds of death-row inmates… It is fanciful to suppose that each of these defendants had lawyers who made the effort to dig up the details and offer these sorry life stories to the jurors who would weigh their fate. I don’t make that observation to excuse the crimes of those on death row, but only to underscore the anomaly of the mercy the court bestowed…on one of that number."  Read the full article below.

Reaction to Execution of a Probably Innoncent Man Grows

Recent scientific reports indicating that Texas likely executed an innocent man have spurred wide coverage and commentary. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three children.  Fire experts now say the blaze was likely an accident. Excerpts from coverage:

New York Times Editorial, August 31, 2009, "Questions About an Execution":

People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.

Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.
. . .
The commission is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.

INNOCENCE: "Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?"

In a thorough and penetrating article published in The New Yorker on August 31, David Grann offers further evidence that Texas probably executed an innocent man in 2004. Grann carefully examines all the evidence that was used in the two-day trial in 1992 to convict Cameron Todd Willingham of murder by arson of his three young children.  It is now well established through a series of investigations by other fire experts that the forensic evidence of arson presented at trial had no scientific basis and should not have led to Willingham's conviction.  Another piece of evidence used at trial was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said that Willingham had confessed to the crime, despite the fact that he had always maintained his innocence and even refused a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty.  The informer eventually received early release, tried to recant his testimony, and is now no longer sure what he heard.  He also suffers from mental disorders.  Willingham's lawyers thought he was 100% guilty and offered no rebuttal expert to question the finding of arson.  At the sentencing hearing, the prosecution put on a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who made a living helping to send defendants to death row by testifying to their future dangerousness without even interviewing them.  Dr. Grigson said that Willingham was an "extremely severe sociopath," words similar to those he used to describe Randall Dale Adams, who was eventually exonerated following an investigation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, portrayed in the film "A Thin Blue Line."

NEW RESOURCES: DPIC's 2008 Article Index is Available

Each year, DPIC collects relevant death penalty articles that have appeared in print and on media Web sites. Our collection certainly does not contain all such articles, nor do we claim that it represents the "best" articles. It is only a representative sample of the extensive coverage given to capital punishment in print in a particular year. For those interested in examining this coverage, we have prepared an index of the articles from 2008 in Excel format. Note that we are not posting the actual text of the articles. The complete index is arranged chronologically and may be sorted or searched by the user after download. Each article’s entry gives its source, date, author, title and  publisher.  To go directly to the index, click here.

NEW RESOURCES: Lapham's Quarterly--"Crimes and Punishments"

The latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly features essays from a wide variety of authors reflecting on crime and punishment. At least one of the articles, by Christopher Hitchens, focuses on the death penalty.  In “Staking a Life,” Hitchens draws on his background in religion, morality, and government to explore why the United States continues to utilize capital punishment while many of our allies have abandoned it.  “I have heard a number of suggested answers: two in particular have some superficial plausibility," he writes.  "The first is an old connection between executions and racism, and the second is the relatively short distance in time that separates the modern U.S. from the days of frontier justice.”  He concludes:  "At once too random and too institutional and systematic, this dire [death penalty] business has now become an offense both to law and to justice."

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Texas Judge Recommends New Trial in Death Penalty Case where Judge and Prosecutor Had Secret Affair

A judge in Texas has recommended that the claim of an unfair trial brought by death row inmate Charles Hood should go forward because the trial judge and prosecutor had a secret romantic relationship that they hid from the defendant before, during, and after his trial.  CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen reported on the story, writing, “Hood's judge and prosecutor lied, over and over again, to hide their affair. Any blame for the delay in bringing justice to Hood is their fault, not his, and Texas would be better off acknowledging that now.”  Judge Brewer of the Collin County District Court found that the trial judge and prosecutor, "wrongfully withheld relevant information from defense counsel prior to and during the trial, the direct appeal, the state habeas proceedings, the federal habeas proceedings, and the successive state habeas proceedings."  He recommended that Hood be granted a new trial.  

 The case will now be reviewed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  Cohen’s full article may be read below:

The Angolite Reviews Developments in Capital Punishment

The Angolite, an award-winning magazine produced by the inmates at Angola Prison in Louisiana, recently published an extensive review of the developments in the death penalty in 2008.  The article by Lane Nelson addressed nationwide trends, Supreme Court decisions, the issues of cost, the risks of executing innocent people, and the problem of inadequate representation.  The article concluded, “[N]ational debates, legislative studies, court rulings and blue-ribbon commission recommendations in 2008 clarified even more reasons why capital punishment is an unworkable system.” 

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Evolving standards of decency? The Death Penalty in the USA in 2008

by Dr. Andrew D. Moran
London Metropolitan University
American Politics Group Annual Conference
St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford
8th – 11th January 2009
E-mail: a.moran@londonmet.ac.uk

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