New Voices

NEW VOICES: Retired Generals Call for Review of Status of Military Veterans Facing Death Penalty

In an op-ed for USA Today, three retired generals call for systemic review of the status of veterans on death row nationwide and urge decision-makers in capital cases to seriously consider the mental health effects of service-related PTSD in determining whether to pursue or to impose the death penalty against military veterans. Calling DPIC's new report, "Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty," "a wake-up call for an issue that few have focused on," Brigadiers General (Ret.) James P. Cullen, David R. Irvine, and Stephen N. Xenakis write that "[c]ountless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine" but defense attorneys in capital cases "are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present" this evidence and prosecutors and judges often treat it dismissively. They say that, "at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field." Citing DPIC's report, the generals discuss the cases of Andrew Brannan, James Davis, and John Thuesen, who suffered from combat-related PTSD but were sentenced to death without adequate consideration of their conditions. They contrast the often untreated "deeply debilitating" long-term wounds of combat PTSD to the physical wounds for which veterans do receive treatment. "PTSD can be treated," they write, "but in one study only about half of the veterans who needed treatment received it." They conclude with a call to action. "We should begin by determining the exact scope of this problem: Who are the veterans on death row? How could their military experience have affected their commission of a crime? How well were their disabilities investigated and presented in court? And what should be done when the system fails them? Veterans facing the death penalty deserve this assistance." (Click image to enlarge.)

Missouri Scheduled to Execute Man Despite Evidence of Intellectual Disability

Ernest Johnson (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Missouri on November 3, despite strong evidence that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. Johnson has shown signs of intellectual disability throughout his life: he walked and talked much later than his siblings, he was twice held back a grade in school, academic test scores placed him in the bottom 1-2% in math and reading, and his siblings say he struggled with basic skills like using a knife and fork. His IQ scores have consistently fallen around or below 70, a common IQ marker for individuals with intellectual disability. Despite all this evidence, Johnson faces execution because, in the words of former U.S. Attorney John N. Gallo, "the facts of Johnson’s disability were clouded in court by the prosecutor’s inflammatory rhetoric." A prosecutor argued that Johnson was not “a weak, little skinny, mentally retarded kid” and told his jury, "To decide it's more likely true than not that this guy is mentally retarded is an insult, an insult to these victims." The prosecutor also accused Johnson of intentionally lowering his IQ scores, based upon the opinion of a technician who lacked any training in administering IQ tests or making clinical observations about them. In an op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Gallo urged Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to commute Johnson's sentence to life without parole, saying, "to allow this execution to go forward would be to sanction a gross injustice." [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court stayed Johnson's execution, but not as a result of his intellectual disability. The Court ruled that Johnson was entitled to pursue an appeal to determine whether Missouri's execution protocols are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual as applied to a person with Johnson's particular medical condition. Johnson has a brain tumor, lesions, and scarring that his experts say create a substantial risk of seizures and extreme pain if executed by lethal injection with pentobarbital.]

President Obama Calls Death Penalty "Deeply Troubling"

In an interview with Bill Keller of The Marshall Project, President Obama said the administration of the death penalty is "deeply troubling," and questioned the manner in which capital punishment is applied in the United States. While the President said that he is not opposed to capital punishment "in theory," he expressed concern about issues including racial bias, wrongful convictions, and botched executions. "We know, statistically, that there's a racial bias that has been built into the death penalty," the President said. "We know that it is hugely inefficient, it takes a long time. We know that there were people who've been on death row that have been freed because, later on, it's been proven that they were innocent. We know that, in the application of the death penalty, we've had recent cases in which, by any standard, it has not been swift and painless, but rather, gruesome and clumsy. And all of this, I think, has led me to express some very significant reservations." President Obama said that these reservations had led him to direct the Department of Justice to "take a hard look" at the death penalty, and that "at a time when we're ... thinking about how to make the system more fair, more just," an examination of the death penalty should be included as part of efforts to bring about broader federal criminal justice reform. 

New Position of National Association of Evangelicals Shows Cracks in Death Penalty Support

Recognizing that "a growing number of evangelicals now call" for a shift away from the death penalty, the National Association of Evangelicals - an umbrella group for congregations representing millions of evangelical Christians in the United States - has backed away from its prior strong support for capital punishment. A newly adopted NAE resolution states, "Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation. We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought." The resolution says "Nonpartisan studies of the death penalty have identified systemic problems in the United States" and expresses concerns about "the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations." Previously, the NAE had been entirely supportive of the death penalty. Shane Claiborne, an evangelical Christian author and activist, called the NAE's change, "a big deal," saying, "For evangelicals, one of the core tenets of our faith is that no one is beyond redemption. The death penalty raises one of the most fundamental questions for evangelicals: Do we have the right to rob someone of the possibility of redemption?" According to a Pew Research Center poll from March 2015, white evangelical Protestants were more supportive of the death penalty than any other group, with 71% in favor, although support had dropped 6 percentage points since 2011. 

Glossip Defense Alleges Intimidation of Innocence Witnesses by Oklahoma Prosecutors

Defense lawyers have filed a motion in the case of Richard Glossip (pictured) alleging that two witnesses who have come forward with evidence of Glossip's innocence have been intimidated by prosecutors. Glossip was sentenced to death for the murder of Barry Van Treese, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, Justin Sneed, who was spared the death penalty in exhange for testifying that Glossip had offered him thousands of dollars to kill Van Treese. On September 23, Glossip's attorneys filed allegations that Michael Scott and Joseph Tapley had been arrested and interrogated by prosecutors in retaliation for providing statements that Sneed had acted alone. Prior to Glossip's scheduled September 16 execution, Scott had provided an affidavit stating that, "Among all the inmates, it was common knowledge that Justin Sneed lied and sold Richard Glossip up the river." On September 16, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a two-week stay of execution to allow consideration of new evidence in the case, including Scott's allegations. Later, a second former inmate, Joseph Tapley, came forward to say he was "sure that Justin Sneed acted alone." Tapley, who had been Sneed's cellmate, said Sneed offered "very detailed accounts" of the murder, but "never gave me any indication that someone else was involved. He never mentioned the name of Richard Glossip to me." Tapley also said Sneed, "was very concerned about getting the death penalty. He was very scared of it. The only thing that mattered to him was signing for a life sentence." The defense filing alleges that, after the stay was granted, Scott was arrested for a parole violation and questioned by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office prosecuted Glossip. It says that "Mr. Prater specifically told Mr. Scott that he ordered this action so that Scott would be forced to talk with Prater and his investigator." An arrest warrant was also issued for Tapley after he told Prater he did not wish to speak with him. Prater sharply denied the allegations of intimidation, calling them "lies." 

Former Inmates Plead for Clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, Who Gave Them Hope in Prison

A group of former Georgia prisoners is calling for clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed on September 29. The women say Gissendaner gave them hope and helped them turn their lives around. Nikki Roberts said she spoke to Gissendaner through a heating vent after Roberts had been placed in "lockdown" for trying to slit her wrists. Gissendaner told her, "Don't wish death on yourself. You sound like you've got some sense." Gissendaner encouraged Roberts to take taching courses and study theology. Roberts joined a choir and became a prayer leader. She was paroled last year and now teaches adult literacy. "Killing Kelly is essentially killing hope. Kelly is the poster child for redemption," Roberts said. Another woman, Nicole Legere, said Gissendaner helped her and many others. "I saw the change in (other inmates) who talked to her. There needs to be people like her, someone to be a mentor. She’s a lot of hope. And there’s not much hope in there." Gissendaner was convicted for her role in facilitating the murder of her husband, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, who received a deal in which he will become eligible for parole. If Gissendaner is executed, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945 and the only person who did not directly commit the killing to be executed in Georgia since the state reestablished the death penalty in the 1970s.

Another Drug Company Opposes Use of Its Product in Executions

Sun Pharma, which is based in India, has publicly dissociated itself from the use of its drugs in upcoming Arkansas executions. The company said it prohibits the sale of its products to entities that might use them for killing. Sun Pharma was notified of the possible misuse of its products by the Associated Press, which had obtained redacted photographs of the drugs Arkansas planned to use in eight scheduled executions. A recently passed secrecy law allows the state to withhold the source of its execution drugs from public scrutiny. (Virginia's Supreme Court also recently shielded some information about executions from the public.) Other companies whose drugs might be used by Arkansas have also objected. Hikma Pharmaceuticals said it was investigating whether Arkansas had obtained midazolam from one of its subsidiaries, and Hospira, which was identified as a possible source of the potassium chloride that Arkansas plans to use, was one of the first companies to bar its drugs from executions.

Conservative Commentator, Texas Editorial Urge End to Death Penalty for Mentally Ill

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hear arguments on September 23 regarding Scott Panetti's competency to be executed. Panetti is a severely mentally ill man who represented himself at his trial wearing a cowboy costume, and attempted to subpoena the Pope, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus Christ. As the court prepares to hear Panetti's case, opinion pieces in two Texas newspapers used it to illustrate larger problems with the death penalty and mental illness. In an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News, conservative commentator Richard Viguerie said Panetti's execution would not be "a proportionate response to murder," but "would only undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system." He wrote that people with severe mental illness, like juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities, should not be executed because they have diminished capacities to understand the consequences of their actions. "The rationales for the death penalty — retribution and deterrence — simply do not apply to a severely mentally ill individual like Panetti, who believes that a listening device has been implanted in one of his teeth." Executing Panetti, Viguerie said, would be "a moral failure for conservatives." A Houston Chronicle editorial discussed Panetti's case and the case of another mentally ill capital defendant, James Calvert. A Texas court terminated Calvert's self-representation after, in the words of the editorial, Calvert "took to defending himself with a farcical style that likely did more to hurt than help his case." Just before the court terminated Calvert's self-representation, a court deputy administered an electric shock to Calvert, causing him to scream for several seconds. The editorial said that "[t]he ultimate punishment - death - merits our highest standards of care" and that "judges must carefully balance the Sixth Amendment's right to represent oneself with the guarantee of competent representation." Calling for the end of the death penalty, the editorial board wrote, "Cases like Calvert and Panetti's show how something as serious as life and death can easily be turned into a farce."