Paula Cooper, Youngest Person Sentenced to Death in Indiana, To Be Released From Prison

Paula Cooper, who was 15 years old at the time of her crime, and the youngest person ever sentenced to death in Indiana, will be released from prison on June 17, twenty-seven years after her conviction for the murder of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Her case received international attention, sparking a campaign that led to the commutation of her death sentence to 60 years in prison. An appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court received over 2 million signatures from around the world. Pope John Paul II asked that Cooper's sentence be reduced. Bill Pelke, the grandson of Ruth Pelke, forgave and befriended Cooper and wrote a book, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing, about his experience with the case.

NEW VOICES: PBS Airing of "The Central Park Five" Underscores Problem of Innocence

George F. Will, conservative commentator of the Washington Post, recently drew a lesson about the death penalty from the documentary The Central Park Five, which airs on PBS on Tuesday, April 16. Will wrote, “[T]his recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes.” The Central Park Five tells the story of five juvenile defendants (four African Americans and one Hispanic) who were convicted of the 1989 rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park, New York, despite the absence of DNA evidence linking them to the crime. Four of the five gave confessions, which they later said were the result of police intimidation. All were sentenced to prison. In 2002, after a recommendation from the Manhattan District Attoreny, their convictions were vacated.

NEW VOICES: UN Secretary-General Calls for Worldwide End to the Death Penalty

On July 3, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on UN Member States that use the death penalty to abolish the practice, stressing that the right to life lies at the heart of international human rights law. During a panel organized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Ban said, “The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict on another, even when backed by legal process… Where the death penalty persists, conditions for those awaiting execution are often horrifying, leading to aggravated suffering.”  Mr. Ban especially emphasized the need for change among Member States that impose the death penalty on juvenile offenders. He said, “I am also very concerned that some countries still allow juvenile offenders under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged offence to be sentenced to death and executed. The call by the General Assembly for a global moratorium is a crucial stepping stone in the natural progression towards a full worldwide abolition of the death penalty.”  In 2007, the UN General Assembly first endorsed a call for a worldwide moratorium of the death penalty, a resolution that has been repeated in subsequent years.  Today, more than 150 States have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it.

BOOKS: "Make Me Believe: A Crime Novel Based on Real Events"

A new novel by Dax-Devlon Ross, Make Me Believe: A Crime Novel Based on Real Events, follows the discoveries and dangerous encounters of a fictional author investigating the case of Toronto Patterson, the last juvenile defendant executed in Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this practice in 2005. Employing actual interviews with Patterson, court documents, news articles and courtroom testimony, Ross's book blends fact and fiction to confront some of the problems of capital punishment in Texas while providing a fascinating story.  Dax-Devlon Ross is a lawyer and writer of nonfiction, fiction and poetry.

(D. Ross, "Make Me Believe: A Crime Novel Based on Real Events," Outside the Box Publishing, 2011). 

Saudi Arabia Condemned for Mass Execution of 37 People, Including Juveniles, After Unfair Trials

In an action condemned by the United Nations and human rights groups as a flagrant violation of international law, Saudi Arabia beheaded 37 people, including juvenile offenders, in six separate locations on April 23, 2019. It was the nation’s largest mass execution since January 2016. Most of the people executed were members of the Shi’a Muslim minority community. The human rights advocates blasted Saudi officials for targeting politically disfavored groups and disregarding international fair trial norms. At least three of those executed were minors at the time of their alleged crimes. Executing juvenile offenders violates two international agreements Saudi Arabia has agreed to, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture.

Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International called the Saudi mass beheadings a “gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent from within the country’s Shi’a minority.” The Saudi Kingdom has long been accused of using the death penalty against political dissidents, trying them in terrorism courts notorious for the denial of due process. It drew criticism last year for using the threat of capital punishment against peaceful human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham, as part of a crackdown on women’s rights activists.

According to Human Rights Watch, 25 of the 37 men executed were convicted in two mass trials that involved allegations that authorities had tortured prisoners to obtain confessions. “Saudi authorities will inevitably characterize those executed as terrorists and dangerous criminals,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, “but the reality is that Saudi courts are largely devoid of any due process and many of those executed were condemned based solely on confessions they credibly say were coerced.” At one of the mass trials, 11 men were convicted of spying for Iran, and at the other, 14 were convicted of violence committed during anti-government demonstrations. The court rejected all allegations of torture and ignored defendants’ requests for video footage from the prison that could have shown the torture. International human rights organization Reprieve said the three juveniles were among those denied basic legal rights, and two of them were severely beaten to obtain confessions.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a statement on the executions, saying, “I strongly condemn these shocking mass executions across six cities in Saudi Arabia yesterday in spite of grave concerns raised about these cases by numerous UN Special Rapporteurs, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and others. … I urge the Government of Saudi Arabia to immediately launch a review of its counter-terrorism legislation and amend the law to expressly prohibit the imposition of the death penalty against minors.” Saudi Arabia has performed at least 104 executions so far in 2019, far outpacing 2018, when it executed 149 people over the course of the year. Amnesty reported that only China and Iran carried out more executions than Saudi Arabia last year.

LAW REVIEWS: The "Unreliability Principle" in Death Sentencing

A forthcoming article by University of Miami law professor Scott E. Sundby in the William & Mary Bill of Rights journal examines the "unreliability principle" established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons. The article defines the unreliability principle as, "if too great a risk exists that constitutionally protected mitigation cannot be properly comprehended and accounted for by the sentencer, the unreliability that is created means that the death penalty cannot be constitutionally applied." That is, certain classes of defendants can be exempt from the death penalty because juries cannot be relied upon to adequately assess the mitigating factors. This principle applied to both intellectually disabled defendants in Atkins and juvenile defendants in Roper. Sundby argues that the principle should be extended to mentally ill defendants as well. Six factors that the court considered in Atkins and Roper are identified, and subequently applied to defendants with mental illnesses. Among the factors identified are the defendant's impared ability to assist defense attorneys, the defendant's impaired ability to serve as a witness, and the defendant's distorted decision-making skills.


On September 2, 2014, Leon Brown (left) and Henry McCollum (right) were exonerated and released from prison in North Carolina.

New Hampshire Senate, Wyoming House Pass Bills to Ban Juvenile Death Penalty

Less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty for juvenile offenders, two state legislative bodies have passed measures to ban the practice. The New Hampshire Senate passed its bill to ban the execution of those who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense on February 19, 2004. The measure now moves to the House, where a committee hearing and vote are expected in the coming weeks. The Wyoming House also passed a measure to ban the execution of juvenile offenders.