New Voices

NEW VOICES: Al Sharpton Debates the Death Penalty at Yale

Baptist minister and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton spoke in opposition to the death penalty in a recent debate at the Yale Political Union. Sharpton noted the dispropotion of blacks who are to sentenced to death compared to whites. He also raised concerns about the risk of executing the innocent, pointing out that many inmates have been exonerated from death row. He said the lower murder rates in states that do not have the death penalty indicate the death penalty does not deter murder. “We are not preventing anything, and we are not providing justice,” he concluded. “We cannot answer murder with murder.” Student representatives from a variety of political groups offered arguments both in favor of and opposed to the death penalty.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Originally Sentenced to Death, Brothers May Now Be Cleared in North Carolina

UPDATE: Both defendants freed after judge overturns convictions. EARLIER: Henry McCollum (l.) and Leon Brown (r.), two brothers who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1984, may soon be freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when they confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Both men are intellectually disabled - McCollum has an IQ in the 60s and Brown has scored as low as 49 on IQ tests. McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence since their trial, saying they were unaware they were signing a confession. “I’d never been under such pressure, people yelling and screaming at me,” McCollum said of his interrogation. “I was scared, and was just trying to get out of that police station and go home.” In 2010, Brown, who is now serving a life sentence for rape after his murder conviction was thrown out, contacted the Innocence Commission about his case. The Commission found DNA evidence near the crime scene belonging to another man, Roscoe Artis, who was sentenced to death for a crime similar to the one for which McCollum and Brown were sentenced to death. (Artis' sentence was later reduced to life.) On September 2, defense attorneys for Brown and McCollum will present the evidence and ask a Robeson County judge to free both men. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who is not opposing the request, said, “The whole case rests on the confessions, and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.”

VICTIMS: Troubling Aspects of the Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, a victim's family member in Missouri described her mixed feelings about the death penalty and the executions that have occurred there. Laura Friedman wrote, "Death penalty supporters talk of closure. That may work as a matter of process — execution rids the state and the justice system of any further involvement — but it is much more complicated for families of victims. Each envelope from the Department of Corrections, each anniversary when the crime is recounted in the paper, every discussion about the death penalty on TV — those are reopenings, not closings." Friedman said many aspects of the death penalty were disturbing: "I am troubled by the number of minorities on death row (more than half), by the preponderance of whites among their victims (about 80 percent, even though blacks and whites are victims in roughly equal numbers). I am troubled by the evidence that juries and judges make unconscionable mistakes (144 death-row inmates exonerated since 1973). And I am troubled by the pretense of execution as a medical procedure: As drug makers and medical personnel back away from participating in lethal injections, states are experimenting on condemned men with untested drug combinations and inadequately trained personnel while concealing the source, skills and methods used." She concluded with the uncertain hope that the process "will finally bring an end to killing in our lives."

Constitutionality of California's Death Penalty to be Reviewed in Higher Court

On July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney (pictured) held that the delays and arbitrariness of California's death penalty system rendered it  unconstitutional. Judge Carney vacated the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has spent nearly 20 years on death row. On August 21, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced the state will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Below are excerpts from Judge Carney's ruling:

  • The Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment by the state. Although reasonable people may debate whether the death penalty offends that proscription, no rational person can question that the execution of an individual carries with it the solemn obligation of the government to ensure that the punishment is not arbitrarily imposed and that it furthers the interests of society. 
  • Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.

NEW VOICES: Bi-Partisan Support for Death Penalty Repeal Growing in Kansas

The Republican Liberty Caucus of Kansas has officially announced its opposition to the death penalty. The Caucus chair, Dave Thomas, said, “Any time you give the government a power that can be abused, it will or may be abused in the future. And taking a citizen's life is kind of the ultimate power the government can have.” The Caucus joined several Republcan legislators, such as Sen. Carolyn McGinn and Rep. Steve Becker, in supporting repeal of capital punishment. The Kansas Republican Party chose to omit a death-penalty stance from of its platform this year, leaving it as "a matter of individual conscience." The Kansas Libertarian Party opposes the death penalty. In 2013, a repeal bill sponsored by two Republicans and one Democrat received hearings, but was not passed. Kansas has 10 people on death row but has not had an execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1994.

NEW VOICES: An Anesthesiologist's Reflections on an Execution

Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist at Emory University, recently witnessed an execution in Georgia and wrote about the presence of two physicians during the lethal injection he observed. He quoted the Medical Practice Act describing the role of doctors as those "engaged in the diagnosis or treatment of disease, defects, or injuries of human beings." However, he noted, "Life is not a disease, defect, or injury. Nothing in the Medical Practice Act authorizes a physician to cure someone of his life." Dr. Zivot attributed the lack of oversight regarding the doctors' participation to Georgia's secrecy law, which shields the identity of all execution participants: "In Georgia, and in other states that have secrecy laws, medical boards are usurped and the state now authorizes what behavior constitutes acceptable medical practice. This cannot be permitted. If the state prevents the board from regulating certain doctors, public health can be undermined in secret. If the state has the power to immunize physicians from oversight of their peers and colleagues, they have a terrible power to pervert the delivery of healthcare for some bureaucrat's idea of the public good. It is a horrific precedent that can be abused, even with the best of intentions."

NEW VOICES: Once a Supporter, Colorado Governor Explains Opposition to Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper stated his opposition to the death penalty, citing the views of murder victims' family members and the high cost of implementing capital punishment. Hickenlooper said he had supported the death penalty until he learned more about it. “My whole life I was in favor of the death penalty," he said, "But then you get all this information: it costs 10 times, maybe 15 times more money to execute someone than to put someone in prison for life without parole. There’s no deterrence to having capital punishment. And I don’t know about you, but when I get new facts, I’ll change my opinion. I didn’t know all of this stuff." In 2013, he granted an indefinite reprieve to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, saying, “If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.” Because of the general basis for Hickenlooper's grant of a stay, it would appear to put a hold on all executions while he is governor.

NEW VOICES: Former Texas Governor, FBI Chief Ask Texas to Commute Death Sentence

Former Texas Governor Mark White and former FBI director William Sessions have petitioned Texas to grant clemency to death row inmate Max Soffar because of the strong chance that a reversal of his conviction will come too late due to his rapidly declining medical condition. Soffar's case has been reversed before, and his latest appeal is pending before a federal court. Soffar's supporters are asking that he be allowed to spend his last days at home before he dies of liver cancer. He has been on death row for over 33 years, consistently maintaining his innocence. "Nothing can save me," said Soffar. "I'm going to die. I've talked to my doctor — maybe five months, maybe four months, maybe three weeks." His lawyers said, "The reality is that the federal court process will likely not be completed before Mr. Soffar dies. The exigency of this situation is the driving force behind what Mr. Soffar admits is an unusual request for clemency at this stage of a capital case."

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