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: Nebraska Senator Changes Course After Hearing from Victims' Families

As Nebraska's legislature began debate on a bill to repeal the death penalty, one senator explained how his views on the issue had evolved. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal Star, Sen. Colby Coash said that his participation with a group celebrating an execution led him to oppose the death penalty: "I made a decision during my shame that I would no longer be a part of someone's death." A second influence was his conversations with relatives of murder victims. He quoted one family member, Merriam Thimm-Kelle, who testified to the legislature about her experience, "Death penalty supporters say that carrying out the death penalty is family closure. Closure is a myth. The death penalty does absolutely nothing for families except more pain." On March 19, the Judiciary Committee approved a repeal bill without dissent. A vote in the entire unicameral legislature may take place on May 13. (UPDATE: The repeal bill was stopped by a filibuster on May 14. The vote to end the filibuster was 28-21, but 33 votes were needed.) Read the full op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Questioning the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty Against James Holmes

Criminal Justice Professor James Acker of the University at Albany recently discussed the decision by the District Attorney to seek the death penalty against James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding many others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In addition to concerns about the defendant's possible mental illness, Acker raised a number of questions about this course of action: "Will the victims and their families somehow be made whole? Would the time and money devoted to achieving this man's death not be better spent on services and law enforcement initiatives meant to repair and prevent the mindless devastation of criminal homicide? Would this man's execution serve an ineffable impulse for justice?" In his op-ed for CNN, Acker also examined the reasons for the dramatic decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S.: "a revulsion against the awful prospect of executing an innocent person; the racial and social class inequities imbued in the death penalty's administration; the enormous financial burden placed on state and local budgets in supporting capital prosecutions; the availability of life imprisonment without parole to keep the streets safe." He concluded by asking, "[W]hat good would be accomplished through this ritual act--[and would] the lives of the individual victims and Coloradoans generally [] be made better, and justice served by his lethal injection." Read the full op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Former Warden, Victim Advocate, and Governor Urge Repeal in Oregon

On February 26, the House Judiciary Committee in Oregon held a hearing on repealing the death penalty. Among those testifying was Frank Thompson, a former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, who oversaw the state’s last two executions. Thompson told the committee the death penalty does not deter crime, fails to make the public safer, and places prison workers in an untenable position: “Asking decent men and women to participate in the name of a failed public policy that takes human life is indefensible and rises to a level of immorality.” Also recommending repeal was Aba Gayle (pictured), an Oregon resident whose daughter was murdered in 1980. Gayle testified that those in her situation will never experience closure and executing the killer would not honor her daughter’s life. She said, “Do not tarnish the memory of my beautiful child with another senseless killing.” The bill under consideration was introduced after Governor John Kitzhaber announced that no executions would occur during his tenure because the death penalty was a failed system. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, Kitzhaber expressed concerns about “evidence of wrongful convictions, the unequal application of the law and the expense of the process.” He concluded, “It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach.”  Read full text of the Governor's letter.

NEW VOICES: Father of Slain Corrections Officer Reverses Course on Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed, the father of slain Colorado corrections officer Eric Autobee (pictured) explained why he no longer supported the death penalty and is working for its repeal. Writing in the Pueblo Chieftain, Bob Autobee, himself a veteran corrections officer, said the pursuit of the death penalty in his son’s case caused an "unspeakable emotional toll" on his family. He  wrote, “Given what I know now, I can no longer support Colorado’s broken death penalty system. What’s more, I will work to end it to ensure that our resources are better used and no family ever has to go through what my wife and I have endured.” A sentence of life in prison, he wrote, would have been a better option: “If the ultimate punishment in our case had been life without parole, my wife and I could be focusing on more important things like our healing and working to stop violence in our prisons.” He suggested using the money spent on the death penalty to make prisons safer for corrections officers: “As a victim’s father who has been trapped in the labyrinth of the death penalty, and after seeing the real misuse of resources, I am begging our elected officials to do away with our broken death penalty system. Colorado can do better by our corrections officials, and we can do much better by victims.” Read the op-ed below.

EDITORIALS: Montana Paper Calls for Repeal

A recent editorial in the Great Falls Tribune in Montana outlined some of the key problems with the death penalty as the state legislature considers its repeal. The editors expressed concerns about the risks of mistake with executions: “There is no way to take back an execution. That reason alone provides good cause to eliminate the death penalty in Montana.” The paper also noted that victims' families wait for decades for executions to be carried out, with the defendants receiving most of the attention: "[D]uring the long periods before their executions, these men received regular publicity and notoriety for their crimes. If they had been simply locked up for life without possibility of parole, people could have forgotten about them." The editorial concluded, “Our bottom line is that it’s risky to execute people when they might not be guilty. In addition, the cost and trauma of court cases that drag on for years is not worth the satisfaction some people receive from the finality of executions. We simply cannot afford to spend millions of dollars each on future death penalty cases.”  Read the editorial below.

BOOKS: "Capital Punishment's Collateral Damage"

A new book by Professor Robert Bohm of the University of Central Florida examines the personal impact of capital punishment on those involved in the criminal justice system, beyond the victim and perpetrator of the crime. Bohm listened to those involved in all steps of the judicial process, including investigators, jurors, and the execution team. He has probed the effects of the death penalty on the families of both the murder victim and the offender. The book, Capital Punishment's Collateral Damage, includes testimonials from members of each group, "allowing the describe in their own words their role in the process and, especially, its effects on them." Bohm concludes that this "collateral damage is another good argument for rethinking the wisdom of the ultimate sanction."

NEW VOICES: Growing Coalition Supports Repeal of New Hampshire Death Penalty

New Hampshire State Representative Renny Cushing (pictured), whose father and brother-in-law were murdered, is one of many members of the state's legislature who supports repeal of the death penalty. "Everyone is moving away from the death penalty. It’s clear New Hampshire isn’t in love with the death penalty. We haven’t executed anyone since 1939," Cushing said. New Hampshire's only death row inmate currently has an appeal before the state Supreme Court. A death penalty abolition bill passed the New Hampshire House in 2009, but was vetoed by the Governor. Governor-elect Maggie Hassan said she opposed expanding the death penalty and is expected to sign a repeal bill if it passes the legislature. Past efforts to end the death penalty in New Hampshire have crossed party lines. Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt sponsored a repeal bill in 2000 and has taken preliminary measures to abolish the death penalty this year. "New Hampshire’s a really strong libertarian state. There is a strong element in the state that doesn’t trust the government to collect taxes and plow roads," Cushing said. "And it certainly doesn’t want to give the government the power to kill people."