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EDITORIAL: Imperfections Abound with Death Penalty

A recent editorial in The Virginian-Pilot points to the problem of arbitrariness in applying the death penalty. The editorial asks, “Is it right to look at who the victims were? Is it fair to consider the strength of the evidence and the time and resources required to pursue the death penalty, a costly process? Does it make a crime less important, a victim's life less memorable, if prosecutors decide that life in a tiny prison cell is punishment enough for the killer?”

The editorial continues, “Even if we assumed that all those convicted are guilty - and in many states, including Virginia, that hasn't been the case - deciding whether to pursue an execution is a judgment call. Sometimes, whether a defendant is sentenced to die depends on how well his attorney represented him. Sometimes, it depends on how much publicity the crime received. Sometimes, it depends on race.”

In place of an arbitrarily applied death penalty, the editorial concludes that life in prison without parole is a satisfactory alternative, and should be the choice Virginia makes.

The complete editorial may be read below:

Imperfections abound with death penalty

The legal decision facing Harvey Bryant - and every other chief prosecutor weighing whether to pursue the death penalty in a murder case - cannot be made in a vacuum when the choice is fraught with moral, political and practical ramifications.

In the 2006 murder at Hilltop Shopping Center, for example, Bryant, Virginia Beach's commonwealth's attorney, had to consider not just whether the crime met the 15 legal criteria for a death case. He also looked at the strength of the case (no eyewitness, but strong circumstantial evidence). He considered the heinousness (the killer had shot his victim in the back as she tried to escape) and the number of victims (one). He listened to the wishes of the victim's family (one wanted death).

Bryant's decision to forgo the death penalty against Christopher Hagans - guaranteeing with Hagans' guilty plea that he spends the rest of his life in prison without possibility of parole - was the right call. He told The Pilot's Duane Bourne that last month's plea agreement brought some finality to Elisabeth Kelly Reilly's family. And it greatly lessens the chance of extensive, costly, time-consuming appeals.

These are gut-wrenching decisions. Bryant acknowledges that. But they're also arbitrary. In another case recently in court - Marcus Garrett, convicted of killing three people at an Oceanfront condominium in 2005 - Bryant sought the death penalty.

That choice was much easier, he said. Three murder victims, not one. Garrett methodically shot five people, two of them mothers. A judge ultimately sentenced Garrett last month to life in prison, but the questions remain:

Is it fair to weigh how many people died? Is it right to look at who the victims were? Is it fair to consider the strength of the evidence and the time and resources required to pursue the death penalty, a costly process? Does it make a crime less important, a victim's life less memorable, if prosecutors decide that life in a tiny prison cell is punishment enough for the killer?

The shortcomings of this justice system are numerous and obvious. Even if we assumed that all those convicted are guilty - and in many states, including Virginia, that hasn't been the case - deciding whether to pursue an execution is a judgment call. Sometimes, whether a defendant is sentenced to die depends on how well his attorney represented him. Sometimes, it depends on how much publicity the crime received. Sometimes, it depends on race.

As Elisabeth Reilly's mother wisely pointed out, killing Hagans can't change what happened, and it wouldn't make it right. Only two things might have helped her feel better: erasing her daughter's agony and that of her family - which no punishment can do - and knowing the state would never give the man a chance to hurt anyone again.

Virginia has that option. Bryant exercised it in accepting Hagans' guilty plea. He's going to prison for the rest of his life. That's enough for Reilly's mother. It should be enough for the rest of us, too.

("Imperfections Abound with the Death Penalty," The Virginian-Pilot, November 7, 2008). See Arbritrariness, Victims, and Editorials.



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VICTIMS: DA To Seek Death Sentence Despite Victim's Beliefs and Family's Wishes

A North Carolina prosecutor has announced he will seek the death penalty in a case where the victim spoke out against capital punishment and her family opposes it. Before her death, college student and University of North Carolina student body president Eve Carson told fellow students gathered for a death penalty discussion that she did not agree with the death penalty due to the flaws in its application. She noted, “It doesn’t work, in my opinion.” After Carson’s murder, her family told Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall that they oppose capital punishment and believe their daughter did too.

Carson was speaking to 20 first-year students gathered in 2007 to discuss Sister Helen Prejean’s book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.” Fellow student Katie Sue Zellner said she believes Carson’s zest for life would have dissuaded her from approval of executions.

The prosecutor has said that he is aware of the family's wishes, but he did not share what other factors influenced his decision. Federal charges that could carry a death sentence are also being pursued against Demario Atwater, one of the two defendants in the murder. It has been almost 70 years since Orange County has issued a death sentence.

(E. Stephenson, "Parents told DA they’re anti-death penalty," Daily Tar Heel, October 29, 2008; M. Baker, Associated Press, "Federal grand jury indicts 1 of 2 suspects in slaying of UNC student body president", October 27, 2008). See Victims and Arbitrariness.


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ARBITRARINESS: Louisiana Serial Killer Sentenced to Life

Prosecutors decided against pursuing a death sentence for a serial killer in Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana. Roland Dominique, who was arrested at a homeless shelter, pled guilty to the murder of eight young men, and he may have killed as many as 23 men. Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz, Jr. decided against seeking the death penalty after consulting with members of the victims' familes.

The family members reached a unanimous agreement to accept a plan of back-to-back life sentences. Some cited opposition to the death penalty and others desired a more immediate closure than a death-penalty case would allow. “I am comfortable because of the unanimity of sentiment from the families, a sense that they were satisfied that they took part in the process,” said Assistant District Attorney Mark Rhodes. “That unanimity gave us a feeling that we had given them the justice that they sought.”

(M. Foster, “DA: Suspected LA serial killer to plead guilty,” Associated Press, September 22, 2008). See Arbitrariness and Victims.  DPIC note: According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the "worst of the worst" offenders, but frequently the worst crimes are not the ones that result in a death sentence.


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Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and the National Alliance on Mental Illness To Launch National Project

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are working together to launch a national project concerned with the intersection of the capital punishment system and people with severe mental illness. The groups will host a press conference in San Antonio, Texas on October 3rd. Speakers will include the Director of MVFHR, the NAMI Policy and Legal Director, family members of victims murdered by people with mental illness, and family members of people with mental illness who were executed. The press conference will be held at 3:00 PM in San Antonio at the University of the Incarnate Word, Bonilla Science Hall auditorium, room 129. (Source: MVFHR press release). See also Mental Illness and Victims.

 


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NEW VOICES: Victim's Brother Says Execution left him with "horror and emptiness"

Ronald Carlson wanted vengeance when his sister was murdered in 1983 in Texas.  But when he witnessed the execution in 1998 of the person who committed the murder he changed his mind.   In a recent op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Carlson said he  had no opinion on capital punishment before his sister’s death and remembers feeling hatred and “would have killed those responsible with my own hands if given the opportunity.” But he later discovered that, “Watching the execution left me with horror and emptiness, confirming what I had already come to realize: Capital punishment only continues the violence that has a powerful, corrosive effect on society.”


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Victims' Families Petition Against Texas Man's Execution

On July 10, Carlton Akee Turner is scheduled to be put to death in Texas for the murder of his adoptive parents when he was 19 years old. But a majority of the victims’ relatives are speaking out against the execution. Victim Tonya Carlton's brother, Kelly Johnson, wrote in a petition to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, “I do not wish to see my sister’s only child executed. I believe in my heart that my sister would only have wanted Akee to receive the help that he needed to restore his mind to a sound state.” Tonya’s first cousin and close friend Krishell Colemen said, “I don’t think Carlton [the defendant] should be executed. I don’t want him to be executed. Now that I know more of the details that led to the murders, I realize that he needs help. Killing him is just another murder. Nothing is going to bring my cousin back. Killing him will just hurt our family again, the way Tonya and Carlton’s murders did.”

The clemency also cited Governor Rick Perry’s statement that Texas can “never forget the impact felt by crime victims” while reminding the Board that the "vast majority" of the victims’ family members don’t want to see the couple’s son executed. “Executions are held out as a talisman that will provide the victim with closure,” said the petition. “This belief serves in part as a rationale for executions. But, in Mr. Turner’s case, an ‘eye for an eye’ truly does leave a family blind, twice robbed of their own.”

The petition also pointed out that Turner was convicted by an all-white jury, with no black citizens even making it to the voir dire phase of selection. The petition argued, “The capital prosecution of an African American man by an all white jury from a jurisdiction [Dallas County] with such an extensive record of discrimination in exactly that arena should cause doubts in the first instance.”
(B. Sanders, "Sanders: Another Troubling Dallas Case," Star Telegram, July 6, 2008). See Victims and Race.


 


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Police Chief Given Life after Victim's Family Speaks Against Death Sentence

A former Pennsylvania police chief was sentenced to life without parole on June 20, 2008, for the murder of his 31-year old ex-wife after the victim's family spoke against a death sentence at the penalty hearing. The district attorney had planned to seek the death penalty against Richard Curran, just as he had for every murder case in the last 13 years. However, Bonnie Smith, the victim’s mother, testified at the penalty phase that her family wanted him to be given life in prison. “Smith made the request to the court after reading a prepared statement on behalf of the victim’s family and an emotional letter from Tina Curran’s 10-year-old daughter, Caitlyn.” After hearing the wishes of the victim’s family, the Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini dropped his plan to seek the death penalty and requested that Curran receive life in prison. Rosini stated he believes justice was served in the case and the punishment was appropriate for the crime. Richard Curran expressed remorse for his actions and thanked the family for helping spare his life.

(M. Gilger, “Curran gets life; family wishes lead D.A. to abandon try for death sentence,” The News Item, June 21, 2008).  See Victims and Arbitrariness.


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Police Chief Given Life after Victim's Family Speaks Against Death Sentence

A former Pennsylvania police chief was sentenced to life without parole on June 20, 2008, for the murder of his 31-year old ex-wife after the victim's family spoke against a death sentence at the penalty hearing. The district attorney had planned to seek the death penalty against Richard Curran, just as he had for every murder case in the last 13 years. However, Bonnie Smith, the victim’s mother, testified at the penalty phase that her family wanted him to be given life in prison. “Smith made the request to the court after reading a prepared statement on behalf of the victim’s family and an emotional letter from Tina Curran’s 10-year-old daughter, Caitlyn.” After hearing the wishes of the victim’s family, the Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini dropped his plan to seek the death penalty and requested that Curran receive life in prison. Rosini stated he believes justice was served in the case and the punishment was appropriate for the crime. Richard Curran expressed remorse for his actions and thanked the family for helping spare his life.
(M. Gilger, “Curran gets life; family wishes lead D.A. to abandon try for death sentence,” The News Item, June 21, 2008).  See Victims and Arbitrariness.


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NEW RESOURCES: “Confronting Evil: Victims’ Rights in an Age of Terror”

In “Confronting Evil: Victims’ Rights in an Age of Terror,” Prof. Wayne Logan of Florida State College of Law examines the use of victim impact evidence in mass-victim prosecutions, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the terrorist attacks of September 11. The article will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Georgetown Law Journal.  Victim impact evidence (VIE) is “information on decedents’ personal traits and the ways in which their deaths have adversely affected those left behind,” and it has been permitted in capital cases since the Supreme Court decision of Payne v. Tennessee (1991). Logan’s article reviews the history of the use of VIE in the U.S. and abroad and questions its particular role in prosecutions with many victims.

Prof. Logan concludes that the problems of VIE, including its emotional impact on trials, should lead to caution by the international community in incorporating such statements: "[T]he international community would be well advised to exercise restraint if it wishes to secure and maintain the perceived legitimacy of its trial and punishment of those involved in the mass killing of innocents."


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NEW VOICES: Murder Victims’ Families Testify in Maryland on the Death Penalty

Family members of murder victims testified before the Maryland Senate Judiciary Committee on March 6 about the painful toll the death penalty has taken on their lives, stating that the resources spent on seeking death sentences could be better used elsewhere. "I've watched too many families go through this to make me believe the system will ever work," said Kathy Garcia, whose nephew was murdered 20 years ago. She continued, "The death penalty divides families at the very time they need each other the most." Other family members of murdered victims agreed, suggesting that the money spent on the death penalty could be better used in providing counseling and other support to survivors. Vicki Schieber, whose daughter was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998, told the committee that years of death penalty appeals are excruciating to families. "The system is just too painful," she said.


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