Women

Georgia Lawyers Seek to Intervene After Brain-Damaged Defendant Permitted to Represent Herself in Death-Penalty Trial

Arguing that a brain-damaged woman facing the death penalty for the starving death of her young daughter “was incapable of representing herself,” lawyers from the Georgia Office of the Capital Defender have asked that they be reappointed as her counsel if the case advances to the penalty-phase of her trial for life or death. Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge George Hutchinson had permitted Tiffany Moss (pictured) to discharge her lawyers and represent herself, even though she has not reviewed the boxes of evidence turned over to her by the prosecution, produced no list of defense witnesses, and said she was placing her defense in God’s hands. She asked very few questions during pretrial proceedings, gave no opening statement, and did not cross-examine witnesses presented by the prosecution. When the prosecution rested on April 26, Moss presented no defense. Veteran Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Jack Martin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “It looks like a prolonged suicide. God may be an all-powerful and merciful force in nature, but he’s a lousy criminal defense lawyer.”

No Georgia jury has imposed a death sentence since 2014, largely because of the representation provided by the Office of the Capital Defender. The office’s lawyers were relegated to the role of stand-by counsel when Hutchinson permitted Moss to represent herself, although media reports indicate they had previously filed a motion alerting the court to her brain damage. In their motion, the capital defenders advised the court that “neuropsychological testing data … showed the defendant to have damage to the premotor and prefrontal regions of the brain.” Dr. Don Stein, the Director of the Brain Research Laboratory at Emory University, told the Atlanta television station 11 Alive that these portions of the brain “are very much thought to be intimately involved in executive function, decision making, and impulse control.” Those brain functions are critical to making rational judgments about self-representation. On April 25, the capital defender lawyers filed a motion in the trial court to terminate Moss’s self-representation in a potential death-penalty phase of the trial. The motion argued that “[t]he jury will have nothing upon which to base a life sentence [if Moss represents herself in the penalty phase], not because Mrs. Moss wanted the death penalty, but because she was incapable of representing herself. … Society’s interest in justice is not served by such a one-sided and arbitrary proceeding.”

Moss’s case, and another trial in progress in Cleveland, Ohio, illustrate the difficulty the judicial system has in assessing the competence of defendants to represent themselves and in ensuring reliability of capital proceedings in which they are permitted to do so. A Cuyahoga County jury convicted Joseph McAlpin of aggravated murder on April 18, 2019, after he had represented himself in the guilt portion of the trial. Following his conviction, McAlpin asked the court for a mitigation report and a pre-sentence investigation to help him present mitigating evidence. To provide time to complete these reports, the court delayed the start of the penalty phase until May 13. Life history investigations typically take months to perform and provide information critical to the mental health evaluation and to giving the jury a full picture of the defendant’s background, upbringing, and impaired ability to function in society.

As death sentences decline nationwide, many of those still sentenced to death are defendants whose cases involved the most unreliable trial proceedings. In 2018, one of every seven death sentences was imposed without a unanimous jury vote, often after defendants were permitted to waive critical trial rights. Several of those defendants fired or refused to cooperate with counsel.

Human Rights Group—Politically Motivated Use of Death Penalty Widens in Saudi Arabia

Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia amid widening pursuit of politically motivated death sentences, mass death penalty trials, and use of the death penalty against female activists, according to a European-based Saudi human rights organization. In its 2018 Death Penalty Report: Saudi Arabia’s False Promise, issued January 16, 2019, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said Saudi Arabia conducted at least 149 executions in 2018, more than double the number conducted in 2013, continuing a four-year surge the group associates with the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Half of those executed were foreign nationals, including 33 from Pakistan and women from Ethiopia and Indonesia. ESOHR reported that the Saudi government concealed at least one execution and failed to announce the execution of the Indonesian woman, and the human rights group expressed concern that the actual number of executions in the country may be higher. 

The Saudi royal family has sought to deflect international criticism of its escalated use of the death penalty by pointing to the use of capital punishment by the United States and other countries. In an April 2018 interview with TIME magazine, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deflected a question on whether the Kingdom would reduce the number of public beheadings and executions in his country, saying: “I believe until today the United States of America and a lot of states, they have capital punishment. We’ve tried to minimize [its use],” he said, and suggested that the monarchy was working with the Saudi parliament on an initiative to change punishments for some offenses from execution to life in prison. The ESOHR report, however, said bin Salman’s statement “is not reflected in the death penalty statistics of 2018. Execution rates have sky rocketed [sic] in the last four years [and] do not indicate any attempts to ‘minimise’ or ‘reduce’” death penalty use. 

ESOHR’s report catalogues an intensified use of “politically motivated death sentences … against an increasing spectrum of government critics,” including human rights advocates, non-violent clerics, and other political opponents. It lists among the politically motivated death sentences the case of Israa al-Ghomgham, the first female activist to face execution in Saudi Arabia for non-violent human rights-related work. Al-Ghomgham was detained in December 2016 during a raid on her home. Her case is being prosecuted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to address acts of terrorism. However, Oliver Windridge – an international human rights lawyer who has written briefs supporting al-Ghomgham – says that its “focus appears to have moved from terrorist suspects to human rights defenders and anti-government protesters.” The ESOHR report describes the terrorism charges against al-Ghomgham as “trumped up” and the trial proceedings as “grossly unfair.” UN human rights experts also have condemned the prosecution, saying that “[m]easures aimed at countering terrorism should never to be used to suppress or curtail human rights work.” 

ESOHR says that 59 Saudi prisoners are currently at risk of imminent execution, including eight who were minors at the time of their purported crimes and twelve men convicted of spreading the Shia faith and allegedly spying for Iran. 

“Judged for More Than Her Crime”: New Report Examines Worldwide Use of Death Penalty Against Women

Women face “widespread discriminatory practices in the capital prosecution and detention” in death-penalty countries around the world, according to a new report by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The report, Judged for More Than Her Crime: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty—released at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on September 18, 2018—examines the use of capital punishment against women worldwide, including the crimes for which women are sentenced to death and the conditions of imprisonment they face on death row. At least 500 women are on death rows around the world, and the report estimates that more than 100 women have been executed in the last decade. The cases in which women are sentenced to death, the report states, are “emblematic of systemic failings in the application of capital punishment,” with death sentences often imposed on women who are illiterate, mentally ill, intellectually disabled, or members of marginalized ethnic groups. The report finds that women’s histories of gender-based violence are frequently ignored by attorneys and judges in those countries that retain the death penalty. In a statement accompanying release of the report, the Cornell Center wrote, “[f]emale survivors of domestic abuse are particularly vulnerable to unfair sentencing practices.” While the report notes that gender bias can operate in favor of more lenient sentencing for some women, that same gender bias results in harsher treatment of women who are seen as violating gender expectations. “[W]omen facing the death penalty have been cast as the ‘femme fatale,’ the ‘child murderer,’ or the ‘witch,’” the report says. In the foreword to the report, Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, writes that “[c]riminal justice processes, largely designed by and for men, frequently are not only blind to the causes and consequences of gender-based violence, they may actively reinforce gender-based discrimination.” The report, she says, “reveals that courts judge women not just for their alleged offenses, but also for what are perceived to be their moral failings as women: as ‘disloyal’ wives, ‘uncaring’ mothers, ‘ungrateful’ daughters. Nowhere are transgressions of the social norms of gender behavior punished more severely than in a capital trial.” The report also documents how women are uniquely affected by the harsh conditions on death rows around the world. In some countries, they must care for their infants or young children while shackled by the hands and feet. Female prisoners in Thailand and Myanmar have reportedly given birth alone in prison. Menstruating women are given little or no access to sanitary pads or other necessary products. Sandra Babcock, Faculty Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, said: “Hundreds of women have been unjustly sentenced to death around the world, yet their cases have been neglected by activists, scholars, and the international community. We hope that this report will draw attention to their plight and inspire courts and policymakers to modify their sentencing practices.”

Cases in Sudan, Saudi Arabia Illustrate Use of Death Penalty Against Women to Enforce Gender Norms

In high-profile cases in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, human rights advocates are protesting the threatened use of the death penalty against women for resisting oppression. In the Sudan, prosecutors are seeking to reinstate the death sentence against Noura Hussein (pictured), a teen girl forced into marriage who killed her abusive husband as he tried to rape her. The Saudi Arabian government is seeking the death penalty against Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist who has sought equal rights for Shiite Muslims. The two cases illustrate a worldwide pattern in the use of capital punishment against women who defy cultural gender norms. Hussein, now 19 years old, was forced into marriage at age 16. She fled the marriage, but was tricked into returning by her own family. When she refused to have sex with her husband, he enlisted several cousins to hold her down while he raped her. When he attempted to rape her again the next day, she stabbed him to death. Hussein's family turned her in to the authorities, and she was tried and sentenced to death in May 2018. After an international campaign on her behalf, a Sudanese court reduced Hussein's conviction to manslaughter, sentenced her to five years imprisonment, and fined her. State prosecutors are appealing the decision and seek to have her death sentence reinstated. Yasmeen Hassan of the human rights group Equality Now called the Sudan "an extremely patriarchal place [where] gender norms are very strongly enforced." She said Sudan permits arranged marriages for girls as young as age 10, "there's legal guardianship of men over women, women are told you have to walk a straight and narrow line and don't transgress." Amnesty International spokesperson Seif Magango called the use of the death penalty against Hussein "an intolerable act of cruelty." Condemning a girl for "killing her rapist husband in self-defence," she said, demonstrates the "failure of the authorities to tackle child marriage, forced marriage and marital rape." Hussein's family has fled their home, fearing reprisal from the victim's family. The victim's father told a Sudanese newspaper that, even if Hussein is executed, they will still seek revenge, because she killed a man, and women are not equal to men. Saudi Arabia, known for its oppression of women, has recently begun a crackdown on women's right's activists. While the Kingdom has often used the death penalty against political dissidents, trying them in terrorism courts notorious for the denial of due process, Human Rights Watch reports that al-Ghomgham is the first female activist to face execution for her human rights-related work. “Any execution is appalling," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, "but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous.” The organization warned that the action sets a "dangerous precedent for other women activists currently behind bars."

The pattern of executing women who break gender expectations has been identified and examined by death-penalty researchers. Dr. Mary Atwell, author of three books on capital punishment, explained: "[F]or the state to put somebody to death in our name, we have to see them as ‘other’ in some way ... and I think that’s even more true with a woman. You have to see her as not just doing things that are violent and cruel, but as particularly outside the expectations of what a woman should do.” That is why, she says, in cases in the U.S. in which women are sentenced to death and executed, prosecutors and the press "played up to a great extent" that "these were women who stepped outside the norms of gendered expectations."

History of Lynchings of Mexican Americans Provides Context for Recent Challenges to U.S. Death Penalty

From 1846 to 1870, more than 100 men and women were hanged on the branches of the notorious "Hanging Tree" in Goliad, Texas. Many were Mexicans or Mexican Americans and many were killed by lynching. In a November 25 op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, historian Alfredo Torres, Jr. writes that these public killings are a reminder that "the noose, [which] has been identified as emblematic of violence and oppression toward African-Americans, [is] often overlooked as a symbol of terror for Mexican-Americans." Torres says that no region experienced more lynchings of Mexican Americans than Southern Texas, and the public spectacles on the Goliad County Courthouse lawn (pictured), now an historic landmark and tourist attraction, were witnessed by Anglo families "in a carnival-like atmosphere, bringing picnic baskets and taking photos." Lynchings of more than 871 Mexican Americans are documented across 13 Western and Southwestern states after the Civil War. But Torres says "these numbers don’t compare to what was done in Texas," where historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb estimate that more than 5,000 Mexican Americans were murdered between 1910 to 1920. That wave of terror included numerous extra-judicial lynchings and murders of Mexican Americans by vigilantes, local law-enforcement officers, and Texas Rangers. Texas A & M-Kingsville journalism professor Manuel Flores wrote in an October 2017 column in the Corpus Cristi Caller-Times that the death and legend of Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez—framed for the 1863 ax murder of a White cotton merchant and horse trader in what was still Confederate Texas—symbolizes the racial violence against Mexican Americans in the state and "are as pertinent to the state of Texas as that of the Alamo and Goliad stories." Rodriguez was falsely accused of murder and the theft of $600 after the dismembered body of John Savage was found on the banks of the river near her traveler's lodge. Though there was no evidence of her involvement in the murder and she insisted “No soy culpable" ("I'm not guilty"), she was quickly tried, sentenced, and hanged. In 1985, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution absolving Rodríguez of the murder, and Gov. Mark White signed the resolution, posthumously pardoning her on June 13, 1985. Cardigan and Webb say that widespread lynchings of Mexican Americans persisted into the 1920s, "eventually declining largely because of pressure from the Mexican government." Issues of racial bias against Mexicans and others of Latino descent in the administration of the death penalty in the U.S. persist. 122 Latino prisoners have been executed in the United States since 1985. Texas has carried out 84.4% of those executions (103), including the controversial execution of Mexican national Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas on November 8, in violation of international treaty obligations to have permitted him to obtain consular assistance from his government. 373 Latino/a prisoners are on state or federal death rows across the United States, with three-quarters sentenced to death in California (188), Texas (67), or Arizona (27). A challenge to the constitutionality of Arizona's death penalty, filed by Abel Daniel Hidalgo, is currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. His petition presents evidence that in Arizona, "a Hispanic man accused of killing a white man is 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white man accused of killing a Hispanic victim." The Court will consider during its December 1 conference meeting whether to accept Hidalgo's case for review.

New Podcast: Women and the Death Penalty, With Expert Guest Mary Atwell

"We live in a gendered society," says Dr. Mary Atwell (pictured), one of the nation’s foremost experts on women and capital punishment, and the men and women who go to death row are different. In the latest podcast episode of "Discussions with DPIC," commemorating Women's History Month, Dr. Atwell says why that is so. Dr. Atwell chose to write about women on death row because she "wanted to do something about capital punishment that was not just numbers, that was a human take on capital punishment.” In the podcast, DPIC staff members Anne Holsinger and Robin Konrad interview her about patterns in cases in which women have been sentenced to death, including the nature of the crimes, the defendants' histories of physical and sexual abuse and addiction, and prosecutor and media stereotyping of female capital defendants as violating gender norms. They also discuss how women are affected differently than men by systemic issues, such as inadequate defense and jury bias. "Women who have been sentenced to death are much more likely than the men who are sentenced to death to have committed a murder of an intimate person, rather than a stranger," Dr. Atwell says. She explains that, "for the state to put somebody to death in our name, we have to see them as ‘other’ in some way – ... and I think that’s even more true with a woman. You have to see her as not just doing things that are violent and cruel, but as particularly outside the expectations of what a woman should do.” That is why, she says, in cases in which women are sentenced to death and executed, prosecutors and the press "played up to a great extent" that "these were women who stepped outside the norms of gendered expectations." Dr. Atwell is Professor Emerita of Criminal Justice at Radford University and author of three books on capital punishment, most recently Wretched Sisters: Examining Gender and Capital Punishment.

Former Inmates Plead for Clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, Who Gave Them Hope in Prison

A group of former Georgia prisoners is calling for clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed on September 29. The women say Gissendaner gave them hope and helped them turn their lives around. Nikki Roberts said she spoke to Gissendaner through a heating vent after Roberts had been placed in "lockdown" for trying to slit her wrists. Gissendaner told her, "Don't wish death on yourself. You sound like you've got some sense." Gissendaner encouraged Roberts to take taching courses and study theology. Roberts joined a choir and became a prayer leader. She was paroled last year and now teaches adult literacy. "Killing Kelly is essentially killing hope. Kelly is the poster child for redemption," Roberts said. Another woman, Nicole Legere, said Gissendaner helped her and many others. "I saw the change in (other inmates) who talked to her. There needs to be people like her, someone to be a mentor. She’s a lot of hope. And there’s not much hope in there." Gissendaner was convicted for her role in facilitating the murder of her husband, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, who received a deal in which he will become eligible for parole. If Gissendaner is executed, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945 and the only person who did not directly commit the killing to be executed in Georgia since the state reestablished the death penalty in the 1970s.

Former Death Row Inmate Michelle Byrom Released from Mississippi Prison

Michelle Byrom (pictured, seated) was released from prison in Mississippi on June 26 after spending 16 years behind bars, 14 of them on death row, for the murder of her husband. Byrom maintains her innocence for the crime, but agreed to an Alford plea -- which means that she pleaded no contest to the charges against her -- in exchange for her release. In 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Byrom's conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial, citing numerous problems in her case. Byrom's attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence, and the jury was never told that Byrom's son, Junior, had confessed to killing his father. Junior initially told police that his mother had hired someone to kill his father, but later wrote in a letter, "You are all I have, and they're trying to take that away from me now, but Mom I'm gonna tell you right now who killed Dad 'cause I'm sick and tired of all the lies. I did, and it wasn't for money, it wasn't for all the abuse — it was because I can't kill myself." Junior pleaded guilty to conspiring in the murder, was sentenced to 30 years, and received a supervised release in 2013. John White, one of Byrom's attorneys, said of her release, "It's been a long arduous journey. The outcome is appropriate, given the history of the case."

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