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New Voices - Miscellaneous
Another Texas Death Penalty Official Has Second Thoughts
Larry Fitzgerald served as the official spokesman for Texas executions for eight years. He represented the state through 219 lethal injections. Retired in August 2003, Fitzgerald left with what he refers to as a, “PhD in prison life.” Due to his expertise with the Texas prison system, defense attorneys have been utilizing his testimony in death penalty cases to describe to the jury why the prison system offers a suitable alternative to a death sentence. He testifies about inmate life, educational opportunities in prison, and most of all, about how secure the prisons are. “People,” he said, “just don’t understand all of what goes on inside a prison.” “My testimony [is] to show the prison system works. No matter how bad this person is, the Texas prison system can handle him,” Fitzgerald explained. The former spokesman for Texas’ executions added that he has come to believe that Texas uses the death penalty “way too much.”
(S. Mills, “Voice of death testifies for life,” Chicago Tribune, June 12, 2008) (emphasis added). Other Texas execution officials who have expressed similar sentiments include the former warden of the prison where Texas executions take place, Jim Willet, and former death row chaplain Carroll Pickett.
New Yorkers Showing Resistance to Federal Death Penalty
Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, the state of New York has been more reluctant to impose death sentences than other states, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. New York federal prosecutors have asked juries to impose death sentences 19 times, but in only one of those cases did they vote for the death penalty. Nationally, federal prosecutors win death penalties in about 33% of cases. In some cases, federal judges in New York have asked the Justice Department to reconsider its authorization of the death penalty. Judge Jack B. Weinstein recently stated that a particular death penalty case before him was a waste of taxpayer money because of the unlikelihood of a death sentence.
(“Aversion to Death Penalty, but No Lack of Cases,” by Alan Feuer, The New York Times, March 10, 2008).
Florida League of Women Voters Calls for Halt to Executions
The League of Women Voters of Florida is urging Governor Charlie Crist (pictured) to continue the moratorium on executions and to consider alternative sentences. In a letter from Florida League President Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti to Governor Crist, the organization noted that concerns about fairness, innocence, costs, and public safety have led them to question the value of capital punishment. In their call for a moratorium, the League stated:
John Grisham on Capital Punishment
Acclaimed author John Grisham (pictured) recently told The Kansas City Star that the death penalty should be "abolished forever" in the United States. "I think the system is so badly flawed that all executions should be stopped. . . . Let's start with the basic concept of a fair trial. We are so far away from that in every state in this country," said Grisham, an attorney whose views on capital punishment started to shift when he wrote "The Chamber," a novel that deals with an execution. Grisham's most recent best-selling book, "An Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town," relates the wrongful conviction and freeing of death row inmate Ron Williamson of Oklahoma. Grisham said he believes innocent people remain on death row and that the margin of error in death penalty cases is simply too high. Grisham now raises funds for organizations that address wrongful convictions.
(The Kansas City Star, May 11, 2007).
"Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist"
In his new autobiography, "Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist," Mike Farrell provides intimate accounts of his life as a television sitcom star and as a human rights activist. Farrell explains how his work on the television program M*A*S*H inspired him to become more involved in politics and human rights issues. Over the years, he has been considered one of Hollywood's most prominent activists, especially on issues related to capital punishment.
(RDV Akashic Books, March 2007).
League of Women Voters Supports Abolition of the Death Penalty
The League of Women Voters of the United States has adopted an official national policy calling for abolition of the death penalty. During the organization's 47th biennial national convention in Minneapolis, delegates adopted policy language stating, "The League of Women Voters of the United States supports the abolition of the death penalty." The League of Women Voters has more than 130,000 members and supporters. It is a non-partisan political organization that encourages the informed and active participating of citizens in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. Mary G. Wilson, the League's newly-elected national president, noted that, "This Convention proved that the League remains a vibrant, grassroots organizations. We debated many critical issues facing citizens across the nation."
(League of Women Voters Press Release, June 15, 2006) Read the Press Release.
The Impact of the Death Penalty on Jurors
During a recent presentation at Valparaiso University, Sister Helen Prejean (pictured) engaged in a discussion with the school's pastor, Rev. Joseph Cunningham. Responding to a remark that Prejean had made about defense attorneys only needing to convince one juror to vote against the death penalty, Cunningham told Prejean that he had been foreman of a jury that sentenced a man to death in 1995. He remarked that he is still dealing with the emotional toll of that experience, stating, "I ache every day. That is why I wanted to meet you. I'm a wounded soul."
Prejean deviated from her own remarks to dialogue with Cunningham, who noted, "As a juror, when you hold the gun, when you smell the blood on the sheets. . .all that, just every day I relive all that. The pictures and the children. ... I dread the day he's executed." Since the trial, Cunningham said he has made contact with the defendant, who remains on death row in Indiana, but he has not gone to see him. Regarding the distance he has put between himself and the defendant, Cunningham said, "I'm a relational person in my ministry. Developing a relationship with him and then having to watch him die or know that he died and that I . . . ." Prejean offered comfort to Cunningham and told him, "Your decision partly came out of a very traumatized man."
(Northwest Indiana News, March 29, 2006). See DPIC's report Blind Justice: Jurors Deciding Life and Death With Only Half the Truth.
Constitution Project Releases Updated Death Penalty Reform Recommendations
The Constitution Project's blue-ribbon Death Penalty Initiative released a new report, "Mandatory Justice: The Death Penalty Revisited," an updated set of guiding principles for reform of death penalty systems. The group is comprised of current and former FBI officials, state attorneys general, religious leaders, victims of crime, academics, legal experts, and community leaders. They identified specific improvements to address problems such as arbitrariness, race, ineffectiveness of counsel, wrongful convictions, and crime lab mistakes.
"We all have different perspectives on the death penalty and the criminal justice system, but Mandatory Justice lays out the basic principles that simply must be part of any fair and accurate death penalty system," said the Honorable Gerald Kogan, co-chair of the Death Penalty Initiative. "Given the great impact of these issues, both on our legal system and in the lives of so many Americans, the committee found it critical to identify both specific weaknesses and specific solutions relevant to any capital punishment system. The Constitution Project has once again drawn a bipartisan constitutional road map for us to follow," said Kogan, former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
The Constitution Project's Death Penalty Initiative was established in 2000, motivated by a "profound concern that, in recent years and around the country, procedural safeguards and other assurances of fundamental fairness in the administration of capital punishment have been revealed to be deeply flawed." Among those serving on the distinguished blue-ribbon panel were former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, former FBI director William Sessions, Oklahoma City bombing case prosecutor Beth Wilkinson, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge Charles F. Baird, and former New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo.
NAACP President Signals Greater Organizational Involvement in the Death Penalty
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, NAACP president Bruce S. Gordon spoke about capital punishment and called for a halt to executions in every state until questions of accuracy and fairness can be addressed. Gordon, who challenged California Governor Arnold Schwarzennegger for refusing to commute the death sentence of Stanley Tookie Williams, noted that the death penalty will be a key issue for the NAACP:
African Americans represent 10 percent of the population and 42 percent of the population on death row. That to me illustrates the inequity of the system and the appropriateness of a need for a moratorium. I do not believe in the death penalty. But this position around the death penalty is not new to the NAACP. Until we can be convinced that there is no bias, until we can be convinced that there is a just and fair application of the death penalty, there needs to be a moratorium.
(The Washington Post, January 16, 2006).
California Bar Association Urges Death Penalty Moratorium
A group of 450 attorneys participating in the Conference of Delegates of the California Bar Association has urged a moratorium on the death penalty in California until the state reviews whether capital punishment laws are enforced fairly and uniformly. "If you make a mistake, it's not like you can go back and correct a mistake because the person is dead," said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers, supporter of the measure and a member of the Bar Association that represents prosecutors, criminal defenders and civil attorneys from dozens of bar groups throughout the state. The group called on California lawmakers and Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar to impose a two-year moratorium on executions and to create an independent committee focusing on race, the reliability of convictions and whether the condemned had adequate legal representation. It also requested an inquiry into the financial cost of capital punishment and whether capital punishment is imposed too often. Executions are rare in California even though it has the nation's largest death row of 640 inmates. One reason for the delay is that more than a quarter of those on California's death row have not been given a lawyer for their first and mandatory appeal to the state's Supreme Court. The state has carried out 10 executions since the death penalty resumed in 1976.
(Associated Press, October 17, 2004)
Rosalynn Carter Calls for End to Juvenile Death Penalty
In a recent opinion piece published in The Miami Herald, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter (pictured) called on Florida and other states that continue to sentence juvenile offenders to death to abandon the practice, noting that it "violates current principles of American justice." Carter stated that America could soon be the last nation on Earth to execute juvenile offenders, and that the U.S. is one of only two nations that have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Carter wrote:
"Our country has sought to protect juveniles in almost every facet of their life, enacting laws prohibiting those younger than 18 years old from using alcohol or cigarettes, entering into contracts, voting or serving in armed combat. We spend millions on drug-prevention outreach and sex education in our schools. Yet, when it comes to the most serious of crimes committed by juveniles, we fail to acknowledge their lessened culpability and inflict the severest of punishments.
(Miami Herald, April 7, 2004)
Urban President Says Death Penalty is "Cruel and Inhuman"
In a recent column, Marc H. Morial, the current President of the National Urban League and former President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, praised recent efforts to halt executions while questions about innocence and fairness are addressed by legislators. Morial noted:
"There are growing calls for moratoria on executions, a growing reluctance among juries to levy the death penalty, efforts to insure that defendants in capital cases, who are most often poor, are represented by good attorneys, and even legislative attempts at the state and federal levels to fix the flaws in various parts of the steps of death-penalty cases. These efforts are worthwhile--in our view, both for their practicality and for their underscoring the moral arguments against the death penalty: It is a practice that cannot be fixed by the application of "practical" measures. It is inherently cruel and inhuman punishment, in no small measure because it is layered through and through with America's legacy of class and racial oppression."
(MaximsNews.com, February 25, 2004)
Theron Criticizes Death Penalty After Movie Role
Charlize Theron (pictured), who recently won a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of executed Florida death row inmate Aileen Wuornos in the movie "Monster," has stated that making the movie made her more aware of how "ineffective" capital punishment is. Theron, who is opposed to the death penalty, was only 15 when her own mother shot and killed her drunken father after he threatened to kill his wife and daughter. "I don't think condemning people who murder and then killing them necessarily sends out the right message. And I have a huge problem with the way these people are used as political pawns," said Theron, a native of South Africa. Theron's portrayal of Wuornos showed her as a homeless prostitute who was sentenced to die for a series of murders she committed after a killing in self defense. Theron has also been nominated for a best actress Academy Award.
(Reuters, February 8, 2003)
Texas League of Women Voters Urges Moratorium on Executions
The Texas League of Women Voters recently called for a moratorium on executions in order to give state lawmakers the opportunity to address systemic inequalities identified during the League's two-year study of the state's death penalty. Noting that "it is time for the state of Texas to re-examine the capital punishment system," the organization stated that its examination found that those who can afford their own attorneys fare much better than those with court- appointed counsel. In addition to the moratorium, the League of Women Voters has called for state lawmakers to provide the sentencing option of life without parole in capital cases, for the Board of Pardons and Parole to hold public meetings, and for the state to end the execution of juvenile offenders, those with mental retardation, and individuals who are mentally ill.
(Dallas Morning News, February 21, 2003).
Legendary Basketball Coach Dean Smith Challenges Capital Punishment
Legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith recently stated that executions are a communal act, and one that he does not believe to be moral or effective. "I do not condone any violence against any of God's children, and that is why I am opposed to the death penalty," Smith stated in his autobiography "A Coach's Life." Previously, Smith had noted, "It simply is not fair and it doesn't even work." As an advocate against capital punishment, Smith urged former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt to stay executions and reconsider his support for the death penalty.
(Chicago Tribune, February 9, 2003).
Rosalynn Carter Calls for Moratorium on Executions, End to Juvenile Death Penalty
During an address at the American Bar Association's annual conference in Washington, DC, former first lady Rosalynn Carter called for a national moratorium on executions and condemned the death penalty as a violation of human rights. Carter commended Governors Parris Glendening of Maryland and George Ryan of Illinois for their state moratoriums on executions, and she offered her support to federal legislative proposals that would nationally suspend capital punishment and increase access to DNA testing in capital cases. During her remarks, Carter characterized the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally ill as "an embarrassment to every American," and she noted that the Supreme Court's recent decision to ban the execution of those with mental retardation should also apply to these offenders. "The United States is the only country in the industrialized world that still executes anyone, and executing children puts us in the company of Somalia --- only Somalia," she said.
(Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 13, 2002).
U.S. Senators Call for Moratorium on Executions, Death Penalty Review
In a Baltimore Sun opinion piece, U.S. Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) (pictured) and Jon Corzine (D-NJ) called for a national halt to executions while an independent review of the nation's death penalty is conducted. The Senators wrote, "The message is clear: In response to the glaring flaws in the administration of capital punishment, the nation should conduct a thorough, nationwide review of the death penalty. No executions should go forward while an independent, blue-ribbon commission examines the federal and state systems of capital punishment - systems so riddled with errors that for every eight people executed in the modern death penalty era, one person on death row has been found innocent." The Senators are co-sponsors of the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act.
(Baltimore Sun, May 16, 2002).
President Bush Urges People to Heed Pope's Message
The newsletter of Catholics Against Capital Punishment notes an apparent irony in a statement made by President George W. Bush. The President recently stated at a reception prior to the dedication of the new Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC.:
"The best way to honor Pope John Paul II, truly one of the great men, is to take his teaching seriously; is to listen to his words and put his words and teachings into action here in America. This is a challenge we must accept."
Pope John Paul II has spoken out against capital punishment in the U.S. has asked for an end to the death penalty. His Holiness frequently writes letters seeking clemency for inmates facing execution.
(CACP News Notes, 5/7/01)
Prominent Leaders Urge President Clinton to Halt Federal Executions
In a letter delivered to the White House on November 20th, religious, civil rights, and political leaders urged President Clinton to declare a moratorium on federal executions. The letter was signed by 40 people, including several former members of the Clinton administration, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, philanthropist George Soros, three Roman Catholic bishops, and members of the committee established by the president to study race relations in America. Organized by Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions, the letter cites the recent Department of Justice study that shows racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty, and calls upon President Clinton to declare a moratorium on federal executions until a further review of the fairness of the federal death penalty process is complete.
(New York Times, 11/20/00)
Signers of the Letter to President Clinton:
Former President Jimmy Carter Joins Mrs. Carter in a Call for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty
On October 12, former President Jimmy Carter stated:
During my earlier years in public office I have supported the death penalty for some especially heinous crimes. The Supreme Court's approval of the death penalty came in 1977, but I was quite relieved that there were no executions in the United States when I was Governor or President. Beginning with special studies of human rights abuses at The Carter Center, I became increasingly concerned about the extremely distorted and abusive executions of poor, minority, and mentally deficient accused persons in America. In my book, "Living Faith," published in 1996, I expressed some of these concerns."
President Carter also said he supported remarks made by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter at an American Bar Association conference at The Carter Center. "I agree fully with the statement of my wife Rosalynn to the ABA meeting in Atlanta today that calls for a federal and state moratorium on the death penalty." At the conference, Call to Action: A Moratorium on Executions, Mrs. Carter spoke to lawyers, judges, and policymakers about the need for a moratorium, and issued the following statement:
"I am morally and spiritually opposed to the death penalty. Even for those who do not share my belief, the questions that have been raised about the unfairness of the system, the conviction of the innocent, poor quality of legal representation, racial discrimination, and the imposition of the death penalty on mentally ill or mentally retarded people and even children clearly call for a moratorium in order to have a thorough examination of these issues.
I commend and support the American Bar Association, an organization that does not take a position on the death penalty, in calling for a federal and state moratorium on executions."
(The Carter Center, "Background on President and Mrs. Carter's Stance on the Death Penalty," October, 2000)
Death penalty supporters who became members of the National Committee to Prevent Wrongful Executions recently explained some of their concerns about the application of the death penalty
Kurt Schmoke, former Mayor of Baltimore, who authorized the death penalty in 12 murder cases while serving as a Maryland State's Attorney, said, "[W]hat I have learned is that the disparities are enormous in who gets put to death in this country." Those inconsistencies make it "almost a roll of the dice" whether convicts die for their crimes, he said. "There is no common standard from one jurisdiction to the next."
William Sessions, the director of the FBI under Presidents Regan and Bush said, "When I came to the FBI we had no capacity to use and review DNA evidence, but by December of 1988, we had a program that became the national model. Out of the first 100 cases where we tested prisoners, 33 people who had been identified by witnesses and by serology [blood type identification] as being the criminals involved were exonerated by DNA testing." "There are 3,500 people on death row," Sessions said, "and many have been there for years, long before DNA evidence was available. As a prosecutor and a judge and an FBI director, I want to be sure we've got the right people. And now we can be."
(Washington Post, 5/14/00)
National Blue Ribbon Committee Formed to Address Innocence and the Death Penalty
Citing the high number of innocent inmates being discovered on our nation's death rows, the Constitution Project announced on May 11 the creation of the National Committee to Prevent Wrongful Executions. The bipartisan group will investigate current criminal justice practices and procedures, as well as recent cases of wrongful convictions, and will make policy recommendations and develop guidelines for reform. Members of the committee, chaired by former Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan, include former federal judge John Gibbons, former FBI director William Sessions, former White House Counsel Charles Ruff, and syndicated columnist Ann Landers. "We are Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, pro-death penalty and anti-death penalty. What we share is a common abhorrence that innocent people are at risk of execution because of failures in the legal system," said Kogan. (The Constitution Project, Press Release 5/11/00) For more information, visit www.constitutionproject.org
Eleven major organizations representing gay and lesbian people joined a growing list of organizational opposition to capital punishment. Their statement against the death penalty came in the wake of the beating and murder of a gay man, Matthew Sheppard, in Wyoming. The prosecutor has said he will seek the execution of those charged with the crime. Among the statements made by various groups were:
Julie Dorf, Executive Director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission: "Human rights are not a euphemism for gay rights. We cannot pick and choose human rights. The death penalty is wrong in all cases."
Richard Burns, Executive Director of the Lesbian & Gay Community Services of NY: "The answer to homophobic violence is not more violence, it is education."Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force: "We join our colleagues today to oppose the death penalty with unified voice."
(Press release, 2/10/99)