New Voices

NEW VOICES: Federal Judge Underscores the "Heavy Price" of the Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who presided over the first federal death penalty trial in Massachusetts in over 50 years, warned that the death penalty comes with a "heavy price" - the risk of executing innocent people: "A legal regime permitting capital punishment comes with a fairly heavy price....where there’s a death penalty innocent people will die. Sooner or later—we hope not too often—someone who didn’t commit the crime will be executed." In 2001, Judge Ponsor oversaw the capital trial of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who was charged with killing some of her patients. Gilbert was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. The judge said the trial made him question the whole process of death sentencing: "The most profound realization I took from Gilbert was that human beings getting together to decide whether someone should be executed, even when they are supervised by a judge, will make mistakes."

NEW VOICES: Mental Health and Law Enforcement Leaders Urge Clemency for Texas Inmate

Panetti
(Click to enlarge). On November 12, the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America, 30 former judges, prosecutors, and Attorneys General, 50 evangelical faith leaders, and the American Bar Association joined many others in calling on Texas Governor Rick Perry to commute the sentence of death row inmate Scott Panetti because of his severe mental illness. Despite his long history of hospitalization in mental institutions, Panetti is scheduled to be executed on December 3. Panetti is a paranoid schizophrenic who represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy costume, and attempted to subpoena over 200 people, including Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and the Pope. A letter of support signed by 30 law enforcement officials said, "We come together from across the partisan and ideological divide and are united in our belief that, irrespective of whether we support or oppose the death penalty, this is not an appropriate case for execution." Fifty evangelical Christian leaders signed a letter saying, “The execution of Scott Panetti would be a cruel injustice that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever. When we inflict the harshest punishment on the severely mentally ill, whose culpability is greatly diminished by their debilitating conditions, we fail to respect their innate dignity as human beings.”

NEW VOICES: Doubts About the Death Penalty Among American Founders

In a recent op-ed in the National Law Journal, historian John Bessler described the ambivalence among American founders toward the death penalty. He noted, "Although early U.S. laws authorized executions, the founders greatly admired a now little-known Italian writer, Cesare Beccaria, who fervently opposed capital punishment. They also were fascinated by the penitentiary system's potential to eliminate cruel punishments." Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Beccaria and other writers on crimes and punishments had satisfied the reasonable world of the unrightfulness and inefficacy of the punishment of crimes by death." James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was one of several founding fathers who sought to reduce the number of executions, saying, "I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishments by any State willing to make it." Bessler concluded, "[T]he Founding Fathers were deeply ambivalent about capital punishment. Indeed, they embraced the principle of Montesquieu and Beccaria that any punishment that goes beyond what is 'absolutely necessary' is 'tyrannical.' In an era of maximum-security prisons and life-without-parole sentences, the death penalty can no longer be considered necessary."

NEW VOICES: Judges Call for Appellate Review Before Impending Execution

A group of 15 former state and federal judges, including a former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in support of a stay of execution for Mark Christeson in Missouri. Christeson is scheduled to be executed on October 29, but the judges said he has not received "any meaningful federal review of his death sentence." In their brief, organized by the Constitution Project, the judges stated: "[O]ur system would be broken indeed if it did not even provide him with an opportunity, assisted by conflict-free counsel, to present his case to a federal court." The supportive appeal was signed by judges from across the country, including Nathaniel Jones, formerly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Karla Gray, former Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, Gerald Kogan, former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, Marsha K. Ternus, former Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, and Michael A. Wolff, former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.

NEW VOICES: Pope Francis Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

Pope Francis called for an end to capital punishment in an address on October 23 to the International Association on Penal Law. "It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples' lives from an unjust aggressor," the Catholic leader said. He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that the death penalty can be used only if it is the "only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor," and that modern alternatives for protecting society mean that "cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." Pope Francis said, "All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty." In discussing a variety of criminal justice issues, he critiqued the tendency to focus solely on punishment, rather than addressing broader social issues.

NEW VOICES: Judge Calls Ohio Death Penalty Costs 'Astronomical'

County Judge Michael P. Donnelly, a member of Ohio's Death Penalty Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recently called the costs of capital trials "astronomical." He went on to say that a county's budget may be a factor in decisions to seek the death penalty: “[W]ith 88 different prosecutors who have complete discretion on whether to pursue it or not, and you have to draw the inference that, in some counties, it’s not pursued because it’s just not economically feasible.” For example, Summit County is facing a 15% overrun of its court indigent defense budget because of five cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty this year. The most recent capital trial cost the county $102,715, lasted nearly two months, and ended in a sentence of life without parole. Court officials said an aggravated murder case without death penalty charges typically costs $15,000 to $20,000 and lasts only two weeks. The judge added, “There’s no way you can look at the way [the death penalty is] applied in Ohio and draw the conclusion that it’s fair, or that it’s accomplishing what it purports to do — and that is, deliver the most severe punishment to the worst of the worst. It’s just not taking place.”

NEW VOICES: Former FBI Director Says People Were Executed Based Partly on Faulty Agency Testimony

William Sessions, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently pointed to cases of defendants who were executed based in part on faulty hair and fiber analysis in calling for changes in the use of forensic evidence. In an op-ed in the Washington Times, Sessions told the story of Benjamin Boyle, who was executed in Texas in 1997. His conviction was based on testing conducted by an FBI crime lab that an official review later determined to be unreliable and "scientifically unsupportable." Neither state officials nor Boyle's attorneys were notified of the task force's findings before his execution. In two other cases, inmates were also executed despite findings that their cases were tainted by unreliable forensic testimony from the FBI. Sessions said, "I have no idea whether Boyle was innocent, but clearly, he was executed despite great doubts about his conviction. Such uncertainty is unacceptable, especially in a justice system that still allows the death penalty."

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty and Calls for Reform

Jim Petro served as Ohio's Attorney General and presided over 18 executions. However, he abandoned his support for capital punishment after seeing the risks of wrongful executions: "Our justice system is based on the decision-making of human beings, and human beings are fallible. We make mistakes and our judgments are influenced by biases and imperfect motivations. Implementing the death penalty makes our errors permanent and impossible to remedy." Recently, he called on the Ohio legislature to adopt the reforms recommended by a Task Force appointed by the state Supreme Court, saying, "Without action the death penalty system will continue to be an expensive, unfairly applied, and risk-filled process that has no place in today's criminal justice system." He asked the legislature to require the recording of interrogations, certification of crime labs, and guidelines for prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

Pages