The Angolite: A Prison Magazine's Inside View on Choosing Execution

A recent issue of the award-winning prison news magazine, The Angolite, featured a story by inmate Lane Nelson about Gerald Bordelon, the first person to be executed in Louisiana since 2002. Bordelon expedited his own execution by choosing to waive his appeals, including his direct appeal, which was previously thought to be a mandatory part of the state's death penalty process. Bordelon volunteered for execution after he was found guilty of raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The choice to waive his appeals was met with strong disagreement from his team of inmate counsels (volunteer prisoners who act as attorney substitutes), who decided they would not assist him in his choice.  Bordelon was represented in his desire to be executed by a noted constitutional attorney from Baton Rouge, Jill Craft.  She succeeded in having the court allow Bordelon to waive his appeals, but later said she would never do it again. Bordelon told The Angolite why he volunteered for his execution: "I'm doing this for [the victim] Courtney.  I'm doing it for her family.  I'm doing it for me.  I'm doing it for my family so they don't have to worry and deal with it for the next 20 or 30 years.  I'm doing it for a lot of reasons."

NEW VOICES: "Death penalty hurts – not helps – families of murder victims"

Kathleen Garcia, a victims' advocate and expert on traumatic grief, recently shared her opinions on the death penalty in New Hampshire, a state that is studying the issue through its Commission on Capital Punishment.  Garcia, a member of New Jersey's Death Penalty Study Commission, wrote, "Make no mistake – I am a conservative, a victims’ advocate and a death penalty supporter. But my real life experience has taught me that as long as the death penalty is on the books in any form, it will continue to harm survivors. For that reason alone, it must be ended." Garcia suffered through the murder of a family member in 1984, but has found the death penalty to be much more harmul than helpful: "It is my opinion, as well as the view of other long-standing victim advocates throughout New Jersey, that our capital punishment system harmed the survivors of murder victims. It may have been put in place to serve us, but in fact it was a colossal failure for the many families I serve."

RESOURCES: DPIC's 2009 Article Index Now Available

The Death Penalty Information Center collects relevant death penalty articles that have appeared in print and on media Web sites. Our annual compilation is a representative sample of the extensive media coverage given to capital punishment for a particular year and is not inclusive of all such articles. For those interested in examining the titles and sources for this coverage, we have prepared an index of the articles from 2009 in Excel format. The index is arranged chronologically and may be sorted or searched after downloading. Each article’s entry gives its author, title, source, and date. It does not include, however, the full text of the articles listed. Click here to download the index.

OP-EDS: "Kansas pretends its capital punishment system is working"

Mike Hendricks, columnist for the Kansas City Star, recently described how the state goes through the motions of having a death penalty, but with no immediate prospect of its use after 16 years.  Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994; eight years ago, the Lansing Correctional Facility held an open house for the media, showcasing its new death chamber. The room was then sealed and has remained untouched. Ten prisoners await execution, one of whom has been on death row for thirteen years.  “No one that I’m aware of is even close,” said Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Miskell.  Hendricks wrote: "Wouldn't sentencing the worst killers to life without chance of parole be a whole lot cheaper, simpler and - given the cold-blooded nature of state executions - more morally acceptable?"  A bill to abolish the death penalty is currently before the legislature.  Read full text below.

NEW VOICES: Past President of Prestigious American Law Institute Says Death Penalty "Unworkable"

Michael Traynor, President Emeritus of the prestigious American Law Institute (ALI), called the ALI’s recent withdrawal of its model death penalty law “a striking repudiation from the very organization that provided the blueprint for death penalty laws in this country.” He noted that the ALI had carefully reviewed the death penalty process, and that "Now, after searching analysis by our country's top legal minds, the institute has concluded that the system it created does not work and cannot be fixed."  The ALI, with membership of more than 4,000 lawyers, judges and law professors, is the leading independent organization in the United States producing scholarly work to clarify and improve the law. Its model penal code became the prototype for death penalty laws across the United States after the old state laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1972. Last fall, Traynor noted, the ALI withdrew its support for the model death penalty law, effectively concluding that “we cannot devise a death penalty system that will ensure fairness in process or outcome, or even that innocent people will not be executed.”

ARTICLES: "Selective Empathy" at Issue in Recent Supreme Court Opinion

Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court writer for the New York Times, recently wrote about the reversal of a death sentence by the U. S. Supreme Court. The Court overturned George Porter Jr.'s death sentence because of the inadequate representation he received and the powerful mitigating evidence in Mr. Porter's life that his attorney failed to investigate and present to the jury considering his client's life.  The Court's opinion noted, "Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did." Ms. Greenhouse's article contrasted this ruling with one handed down last month in the case of Robert J. Van Hook, who also claimed inadequate counsel. In his case, the Court overtuned a federal appeals court's grant of relief, concluding that Van Hook's lawyer made "professionally reasonable" decisions regarding his case. Van Hook was also a military veteran, and like Porter, was also a product of a violent and abusive childhood.

Greenwood writes, "Setting the Porter and the Van Hook cases side by side, what strikes me is how similarly horrific the two men’s childhoods were - indeed, how common such childhoods were among the hundreds of death-row inmates… It is fanciful to suppose that each of these defendants had lawyers who made the effort to dig up the details and offer these sorry life stories to the jurors who would weigh their fate. I don’t make that observation to excuse the crimes of those on death row, but only to underscore the anomaly of the mercy the court bestowed…on one of that number."  Read the full article below.

Reaction to Execution of a Probably Innoncent Man Grows

Recent scientific reports indicating that Texas likely executed an innocent man have spurred wide coverage and commentary. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three children.  Fire experts now say the blaze was likely an accident. Excerpts from coverage:

New York Times Editorial, August 31, 2009, "Questions About an Execution":

People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.

Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.
. . .
The commission is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.

INNOCENCE: "Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?"

In a thorough and penetrating article published in The New Yorker on August 31, David Grann offers further evidence that Texas probably executed an innocent man in 2004. Grann carefully examines all the evidence that was used in the two-day trial in 1992 to convict Cameron Todd Willingham of murder by arson of his three young children.  It is now well established through a series of investigations by other fire experts that the forensic evidence of arson presented at trial had no scientific basis and should not have led to Willingham's conviction.  Another piece of evidence used at trial was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said that Willingham had confessed to the crime, despite the fact that he had always maintained his innocence and even refused a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty.  The informer eventually received early release, tried to recant his testimony, and is now no longer sure what he heard.  He also suffers from mental disorders.  Willingham's lawyers thought he was 100% guilty and offered no rebuttal expert to question the finding of arson.  At the sentencing hearing, the prosecution put on a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who made a living helping to send defendants to death row by testifying to their future dangerousness without even interviewing them.  Dr. Grigson said that Willingham was an "extremely severe sociopath," words similar to those he used to describe Randall Dale Adams, who was eventually exonerated following an investigation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, portrayed in the film "A Thin Blue Line."