New Voices

NEW VOICES: Texas Appellate Judge Denounces Death Penalty and Upcoming Execution

On Nov. 26, Judge Tom Price dissented from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' denial of relief for Scott Panetti:
"Having spent the last forty years as a judge for the State of Texas, of which the last eighteen years have been as a judge on this Court, I have given a substantial amount of consideration to the propriety of the death penalty as a form of punishment for those who commit capital murder, and I now believe that it should be abolished. I, therefore, respectfully dissent from the Court's order denying the motion for stay of execution and dismissing the subsequent application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Scott Louis Panetti, applicant. I would grant applicant's motion for a stay of execution and would hold that his severe mental illness renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

Growing Opposition to Execution of Severely Mentally Ill Inmate in Texas

Commentary on Scott Panetti's scheduled execution on December 3 in Texas:

"By any reasonable standard — not to mention the findings of multiple mental-health experts over the years — Mr. Panetti is mentally incompetent...A civilized society should not be in the business of executing anybody. But it certainly cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability if it kills someone like Scott Panetti."
-N.Y. Times, Nov. 23, 2014

"In a 1986 decision, the Supreme Court said that executing the insane served no purpose and would be 'savage and inhumane.' Today, no words could better describe the state’s plans to strap Panetti to a gurney and end his tortured life."
-Dallas Morning News, Nov. 23, 2014

"[W]e believe that executing a person as severely and persistently ill as Scott Panetti would only compound the original tragedy, represent a profound injustice, and serve no useful retributive or preventive purpose."
-National Alliance on Mental Illness, Nov. 17, 2014

"The European Union strongly believes that the execution of persons suffering from a mental disorder is contrary to widely accepted human rights norms and is in contradiction to the minimum standards of human rights set forth in several international human rights instruments, as well as being prohibited by the US Constitution."
-European Union, Nov. 14, 2014

NEW VOICES: Retired Police Captain Says Repealing Death Penalty Is "Smart on Crime"

Jim Davidsaver, a retired police captain with over 25 years experience in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department, recently advocated for repeal of the state's death penalty from a law enforcement perspective. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal-Star, Davidsaver said, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty doesn’t keep us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." He highlighted the financial tradeoff between the death penalty and other crime prevention measures: "The millions of dollars we’ve spent on the death penalty would have been much better invested in more police officers, additional resources or training for our current officers." He concluded, "The cheaper, more intelligent alternative for our state is life without the possibility of parole. Repealing the death penalty does not mean we are ‘soft’ on crime. It means we are smart on crime."

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.

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