New Voices

NEW VOICES: Former Reagan Attorney General and Former Manhattan Prosecutor Speak Out In Possible Innocence Case

Edwin Meese III (pictured), who served as U.S. Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, and Robert Morgenthau, the long-time district attorney of Manhattan who served as a U.S. attorney under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, believe that Alabama death row prisoner William Kuenzel is innocent and are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case. Meese and Morgenthau belong to different political parties and take opposing views on capital punishment, but both believe that Kuenzel was wrongfully convicted and condemned for the 1987 murder of a convenience store clerk and deserves a chance to present new evidence. Kuenzel was implicated in the murder after a car belonging to Harvey Venn, a boarder in Kuenzel's home, was seen near the crime scene. He was convicted after Venn admitted to having driven the car, but claimed that Kuenzel had actually shot the clerk, and a 16-year-old passenger in a car that was passing by the store testified that she had seen Venn and Kuenzel inside the store. Alabama prosecutors offered both men a deal for leniency if they agreed to plead guilty and testify against one another. Venn agreed and spent only ten years in prison, but Kuenzel maintained his innocence and rejected the deal. Since the trial, previously-withheld evidence has emerged that supports Kuenzel's innocence claim, including police notes of an initial interview with Venn in which he said another man was in the car with him, and the grand jury testimony of the passerby in which the girl said that she "couldn't really see" the faces of the men in the store. In an amicus brief, Meese calls the withholding of that evidence "the very worst kind of Brady violation, which resulted in condemning to death a defendant whose conviction was obtained in violation of the Constitution and who is very likely actually innocent." Morgenthau said of Kuenzel, "[t]here's no possible way he could have committed the murder." Meese and Morgenthau also share a concern about the quality of representation in capital cases, and are calling for automatic appellate review of the competence of defense counsel.

Death Row Exonerees Speak Out on State Death Penalty Ballot Questions

As voters get set to cast ballots on death penalty questions in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, U.S. death row exonerees from across the country have been scouring those states in an effort to inform the public of the risks of wrongful executions. On September 19, 17 of the nation's 156 death-row exonerees appeared at a California press conference advocating approval of Proposition 62, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole plus restitution, and defeat of Proposition 66, which seeks to place limits on the capital appeals process. Many, including California exoneree Shujaa Graham (pictured), Florida exoneree Juan Melendez, Arizona exonerees Ray Krone and Debra Milke, and Louisiana exoneree Damon Thibodeaux urged a no vote on Prop. 66, arguing that they would have been executed without the chance to prove their innocence if a measure like it had been effect when they were sentenced to death. A few days earlier, Illinois exoneree Randy Steidl and Ohio exoneree Kwame Ajamu spoke to the Oklahoma Republican Liberty Caucus, a group described by its chairman, Logan County Commissioner Marven Goodman, as "disenfranchised conservatives" who, as a result of their distrust of government regulation are questioning the death penalty. Steidl and Ajamu told the caucus about their wrongful capital convictions and raised concerns about the effects of limitations on judicial review under Oklahoma ballot question 776, which would bar Oklahoma courts from ruling that the imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel or unusual punishment or "contravene[d] any provision of the Oklahoma Constitution." Steidl, who was wrongfully convicted in Illinois in 1987 and exonerated in 2004, stressed the importance of appellate review in securing his exoneration: "Without the judicial review I finally got, I’d be dead today or at least be languishing in prison," he said. "I really believe that Oklahoma’s track record so far is not very pretty when you’ve got 10 people that’s been exonerated." And in Nebraska, Maryland's Kirk Bloodsworth, the first former death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA, taped an ad on behalf of Retain A Just Nebraska, the advocacy committee opposing a voter referendum that could overturn the state legislature's repeal of Nebraska's death penalty. In the ad, Bloodsworth says: "You could free a man from prison, but you cannot free him from the grave. You can not un-execute someone. ... If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal record or criminal history, it could happen to anybody in America.”

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro Says Death Penalty Unfixable, "Not Worth It Any More"

In a recent commentary in the Columbus Dispatch, former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro (pictured) criticized the state's death penalty as "a broken system that currently serves only the interest of Ohio prosecutors" and said that keeping "the death penalty is just not worth it any more." As a state legislator, Petro helped write Ohio’s current death-penalty law and he oversaw eighteen executions as Attorney General from 2003-2007. He says, at the time "[w]e thought maybe it would be a deterrent. Maybe the death penalty would provide cost savings to Ohio. What I know now is that we were wrong." Petro expressed his agreement with the conclusions in a report, “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty," released last week by Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE), which he says "details a continuing decline in executions and new death sentences in Ohio while highlighting the disparities between counties that prosecute death cases." The decline is exemplified by the fact that only one new death sentence was imposed in Ohio in 2015 -- the fourth consecutive year of decline -- and Cuyahoga and Summit counties, which are responsible for more than 25% of Ohio's death sentences, did not initiate any new death penalty cases last year. The change in death penalty practices in Cuyahoga, which through 2012 had sought death in dozens of cases a year, had nothing to do with crime rates: "there was a new prosecutor," Petro said. By contrast, Trumbull County had one of the lowest homicide rates in the state but the highest death-sentence-per-homicide rate. "It has become clear to me that what matters most is the personal predilections of a county prosecutor," Petro said. Petro also was critical of apparent legislative indifference to the flaws in Ohio's capital punishment system. Despite 13 wrongful convictions and exonerations in Ohio death penalty cases and 56 recommendations for reform made in 2014 by the Ohio Supreme Court's Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, the legislature has seen fit to consider "[o]nly a handful of the recommendations ... , and not those which would make the biggest difference." Petro concludes: "I am convinced that the death penalty is just not worth it any more, and I don’t think it can be fixed. ... If we’re going to have the death penalty, then it must not be carried out until the legislature implements the task force’s reforms intended to ensure fairness and accuracy."

National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

Calling racial bias in the administration of the death penalty "an undisputed fact," the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL), a group of 320 Hispanic legislators, has passed a resolution urging legislative action in all state and federal jurisdictions to repeal the death penalty across the United States. The legislators note that the criminal justice system subjects "Black, Latino, Native Americans, and all people of color" to more punitive treatment, including being "more likely to be sentenced to death." The resolution highlights racial inequities that occur at several key stages of capital cases. Citing studies that "white juries are more likely to sentence a Latino defendant to death," it also stresses that "racial bias extends beyond who is sentenced to death," as the mostly white prosecutors who have authority to make life and decisions in capital cases disproportionately seek death in cases involving white victims. The resolution points out that "every single one" of the ten counties with the largest death row populations in the United States "has large or majority Latino populations," magnifying the impact of capital punishment policies on the Hispanic community. NHCSL President and Pennsylvania State Representative Ángel Cruz said, "We cannot allow more government dollars to be diverted to killing people, instead of investing them in prevention, rehabilitation, and effective crime fighting measures that ensure greater safety in our communities. We therefore call on the federal government and every other jurisdiction in this country to end a senseless policy and end the death penalty now." Referencing the high cost of capital punishment, the resolution proposes alternative uses for those tax dollars: "repeal of the death penalty will free up millions of tax dollars trapped in cash-strapped state budgets that could be redirected to violence prevention, combatting implicit bias, or supporting victims of violence in Latino communities." Colorado Representative Dan Pabón, co-sponsor of the resolution, said, "This is the civil rights issue of our time.  Even if repealing the death penalty results in one innocent life being saved, it’s worth it.  Our criminal justice system should focus on 'justice.'"

NEW VOICES: Latino Evangelical Leaders Call For End to Capital Punishment

Leaders of national Latino evangelical groups are calling for an end to the death penalty, citing both religious convictions and practical concerns about the fairness of capital punishment. Reverend Gabriel Salguero (pictured), founder of the Latino Evangelical Coalition, said, “Given studies on how the death penalty is meted out, particularly for people of color, if it’s not a level playing field, we need to speak out. ... The needle has moved for Latinos and evangelicals." According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Latinos comprise a growing portion of the nation's death rows, increasing from 11% in 2000 to 13.5% in 2010, with half of the new Latino death row inmates coming from California. A 2014 study of California jurors found that white jurors were more likely to impose death sentences if defendants were Latino and poor. Another California study found that the odds that a capital defendant would be sentenced to death were were more than triple for those convicted of killing whites than for those convicted of killing blacks and more than 4 times greater than for defendants convicted of killing Latinos. "There’s been a shift, not just attributed to religion, but a heightened understanding of the death penalty and its implicit bias in the criminal justice system," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Salguero summarized the religious backing for opposition to the death penalty, saying, "The gospel teaches us that crime has a place, but God has the last word....Christ was an innocent man who was executed. If there’s a possibility that we execute one innocent person we should have pause."

NEW VOICES: Former FBI Agent Now Opposes Death Penalty, Seeks Exoneration of California Death Row Prisoner Kevin Cooper

During his 45 years in law enforcement, including 24 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, homicide investigator Tom Parker (pictured) changed his view on the death penalty. "There were times during my career when I would gladly have pushed the button on a murderer,” he said. “Today, my position would be, life without parole." Parker says that seeing corrupt homicide investigations convinced him that innocent people could be executed. As result, he now opposes capital punishment and is supporting California's Justice That Works Act, a ballot measure that would repeal the death penalty. Parker says the worst case of police misconduct he has seen in a capital case is that of California death row prisoner Kevin Cooper. Parker has re-investigated the case pro bono for five years in an effort to free Cooper. “I’m convinced he was framed. We arrest and convict innocent people almost every day in this country. As long as we have a death penalty in America, we will continue to execute innocent people.” Cooper was sentenced to death for four 1983 murders, and has completed his appeals, meaning that he could be executed if California resumes lethal injections. Parker says Cooper's conviction was a result of "police tunnel vision" - making the evidence fit the suspect, rather than seeking a suspect who fit the evidence. Working as a consultant with Cooper's attorneys, Parker has found witnesses who say they saw three white men, two of whom wore blood-spattered clothing, acting strangely at a bar near the crime scene on the night of the murders. The initial statement from the one survivor of the crime pointed to three white men as the perpetrators, but Cooper is black. Cooper recently received support from the American Bar Association in his efforts to receive clemency from Governor Jerry Brown.

Nebraska Exonerees Awarded $28 Million, Prosecutor Says Case Made Him Oppose Death Penalty

A federal court jury has awarded six Nebraska exonerees (pictured, at their exoneration) $28 million in damages for official misconduct that led to their wrongful convictions in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson. The "Beatrice Six," as the group came to be known, were falsely accused of the killing and threatened with the death penalty. Five of the defendants—James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, and Tom Winslow—agreed to plea bargains or pled no contest to avoid possible death sentences. The sixth—Joseph E. White—demanded a jury trial, and was convicted. All six were exonerated by DNA evidence tested in 2008. On July 6, the jury found that the Gage County, Nebraska Sheriff's Office had been reckless in its investigation and had fabricated evidence. The $28 million damages award exceeds the entire annual budget of Gage County by $1 million, and the county does not have an insurance policy to cover court judgments resulting from law enforcement misconduct. At a press conference on July 8, Randall Rintour, the Gage County prosecutor who reopened the Beatrice Six case in 2008, said the case had changed his views on the death penalty. “It happened right here in our backyard. We can’t say it’s not possible to make a mistake because we did, we made a huge one," he said. "Our ability to execute all the ... murderers we can is not worth the death of one innocent individual at the hands of the state." State Sen. Burke Harr, a former Douglas County deputy prosecutor, joined Rintour in urging Nebraskans to retain the state's repeal of the death penalty, which is the subject of a November referendum. Sen. Harr, one of 30 legislators who voted in favor of repeal, said, "The death penalty is just that, it’s forever. There’s no coming back."

NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."