Articles

Two Defendants from the Same Case Illustrate Inequities in Florida's Death Penalty

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Marc Bookman compared the path through the justice system of two co-defendants sentenced to death in Florida after committing murder in 1977. Beauford White was electrocuted in 1987, despite his trial jury voting 12-0 for a life sentence. The trial judge overrode that recommendation and imposed death. White's co-defendant, John Ferguson, lived for another 26 years before being executed in 2013. His jury voted 12-0 for death. The foreman of White's jury later said, "We voted for life because we did not see a shred of evidence indicating that White himself actually took part in the killing." Two dissenting U.S. Supreme Court Justices called White's execution "inexcusable." Ferguson, on the other hand, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia by seven different doctors before the murder that sent him to death row, but courts eventually found him competent enough to be executed. The cases illustrate the wide disparities in the application of the death penalty.

FROM DPIC: Extensive News Coverage of Year End Report

National and local media have focused significant attention on DPIC's recent 2013 Year End Report. Coverage has included pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, CNN, on the wires of the Associated Press and Reuters, and in hundreds of other articles and editorials. Papers highlighted the main theme of the report, which showed a continuing decline in the use of the death penalty around the country. The New York Times quoted DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, as commenting that “A societal shift is underway.” The Associated Press quoted Dieter saying, "I think the decline begins with the revelations about mistakes in capital cases - that innocent people could get the penalty and almost be executed has shocked the public to the point where death sentences are harder to obtain."

Toobin on America's Ambivalence Toward the Death Penalty

Jeffrey Toobin, writing in The New Yorker, used the current scramble among states to procure the drugs for lethal injections as a paradigm of the much longer effort to make the death penalty palatable to the American public. "The story of the death penalty in this country," he wrote, "illustrates a characteristically American faith in a technological solution to any problem." However, Toobin concluded, technology can not cover up the broader problems of capital punishment: "The oxymoronic quest for humane executions only accentuates the absurdity of allowing the death penalty in a civilized society." He ended highlighting the declining public support for the death penalty, as well as the drop in executions and death sentences across the country.

NEW VOICES: Another Conservative Leader Challenges the Death Penalty

In an op-ed in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tennessean Drew Johnson evoked conservatives' intentions to "protect innocent life, promote financial responsibility and support government programs that really work" in criticizing the death penalty. Johnson, a Senior Fellow at Taxpayers Protection Alliance and founder of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, cited the many exonerations from death row as another reason to challenge capital punishment: "Life is too precious to rely on mistake-prone processes like the death penalty." He noted that the Tennessee Comptroller's Office's found capital trials to be 48% more expensive than life-without-parole trials. Finally, relying on the conservative value of limited government, he concluded, "My view of limited government is not giving the state the power to kill American citizens. There is nothing limited about that authority....It's time that conservative Tennesseans begin to look at the death penalty to consider whether it's consistent with our view of the role of government and decide if retribution and revenge is worth sacrificing our principles, freedoms and liberties." Read the full op-ed below.

INNOCENCE: The Role of Journalists in Freeing An Innocent Man

The fortuitous investigation of a case by persistent journalists, rather than the workings of the limited appellate process, has led to the exoneration of a number of innocent individuals. Maurice Possley (l.), a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, recently wrote how he and fellow-journalist Steve Mills (r.) helped free Daniel Taylor (c.) in Illinois, where he had spent more than 20 years in prison. In 2001, the reporters published a story exposing the false and coerced confession that led to Taylor’s conviction, but it would be more than a decade before Taylor was freed. Evidence showed that Taylor was arrested for fighting and was in jail on the night of the murders in question. Eventually, the state discovered documents in the prosecutor’s files that had remained hidden for 19 years indicating police officers were certain Taylor was in jail and could not have committed the crime. Taylor's is among the 1,200 wrongful convictions listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. DPIC’s Innocence List includes 142 death row inmates who have been exonerated and freed. Such investigatory reporting contributed to Illinois's decision to abolish the death penalty in 2011.

False Confessions and Threats of the Death Penalty

A recent article in The Atlantic by Marc Bookman (pictured) shows how threats of the death penalty can contribute to false confessions. The piece recounts a Pennsylvania murder case in which two defendants, Russell Weinberger and Felix Rodriguez, admitted to a murder they did not commit, leading to their imprisonment for over 21 years. Rodriguez described his interrogation: "First they showed me pictures of the dead guy. I started to cry. I said I didn't do that. That's when they slapped me on the back of my head, said 'They gonna put you in the electric chair.' So I signed the statement. I knew it might be bad, but I didn't know what to do. I'd never been in real trouble before. I signed the statement 'cause they said I could go home."  Weinberger, who was intellectually disabled with an IQ between 60 and 65, at first denied involvement in the murder, but later submitted a confession after Rodriquez implicated him in the crime. Weinberger was offered a lesser sentence if he agreed to testify against Rodriguez. Twenty years later in March 2001, a prison inmate named Anthony Sylvanus (represented by Mr. Bookman) admitted to committing 5 similar murders, including the one Weinberger and Rodriguez had confessed to. Sylvanus revealed facts that only the true perpetrator was likely to know. Rodriguez and Weinberger were eventually allowed to plead nolo contendere and were released from prison after serving 21 years.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus and the Warren Hill Case

UPDATE: Warren Hill was granted a stay of execution by a Georgia court just hours before his scheduled execution on July 15. A hearing is scheduled for July 18 to consider challenges to a new state law that shields the identity of the lethal injection drug's manufacturer and the prescribing physician from the public. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 15, 2013).

As a petition on behalf of Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill awaits consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, the role of habeas corpus in protecting defendants' fundamental rights has assumed greater importance. A recent article by Lincoln Caplan in the American Prospect explores the significance of the "Great Writ." This guarantee of constitutional protections allows federal courts to determine whether an inmate is being held in violation of the Constitution or other laws, and has been used to challenge death sentences that may have been unlawful. In 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was passed by the U.S. Congress, imposing a time limit on filing such petitions and generally allowing only one such petition. Hill's recent appeal containing clear proof of his mental retardation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was denied because the court said it was a second petition and could only be considered if it related to his innocence, rather than his death sentence. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote, “The perverse consequence of such an application of AEDPA is that a federal court must acquiesce to, even condone, a state’s insistence on carrying out the unconstitutional execution of a mentally retarded person.” Hill is scheduled to be executed on July 15 unless the Supreme Court intervenes.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Texas Inmate Gouges Out Eyes, Remains on Death Row

Texas death-row inmate Andre Thomas has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and auditory hallucinations drove him to gouge out both of his eyes. Nevertheless, prosecutors still believe he should be executed. In a revealing recent essay in Mother Jones magazine, author Marc Bookman described in vivid detail Thomas's family history of mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence going back at least two generations.  A brief excerpt from the article epitomized Thomas's delusions:  "On July 14, 2008, Andre managed to procure something sharp and slash a seven-centimeter gash in his throat, requiring eight stitches. He insisted that he was the cause of all the problems in the world, and that if he killed himself all the problems would stop. The next day, he reported that he had been reading his Bible and got confused because he wasn't sure if it was the voices or his own thoughts that were telling him to kill himself. During a psychiatric assessment one week later, he explained that 'The government is conspiring to read my mind. That's why I ripped out my right eye. That's the righteous side. They can't hear my thoughts no more. I cut my throat. Gotta shed a little blood to save the world.'" In the three weeks before he killed his wife and two children, police were asked to apprehend him and bring him to a mental hospital on two separate occasions.  After Thomas removed his second eye, he was moved to a facility for mentally ill prisoners, but the state continues to pursue his execution.

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