New Voices

Alabama Governor Calls Life “Precious” and “Sacred,” Then Denies Clemency to Michael Samra

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has drawn criticism for denying clemency and presiding over the execution of Michael Samra (pictured) on May 16, 2019, one day after issuing a statement calling Alabama a pro-life state and declaring life “precious” and “sacred.” On May 15, Ivey signed into law a bill that criminalizes abortion, saying that the new law “stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” After Samra’s execution the following evening, her office issued a statement that “Alabama will not stand for the loss of life in our state, and with this heinous crime, we must respond with punishment. ... This evening justice has been delivered to the loved ones of these victims, and it signals that Alabama does not tolerate murderous acts of any nature.”

Ivey’s actions prompted rebukes from liberal and conservative quarters and renewed the question of whether one who supports capital punishment can be considered “pro-life.” “It’s a contradiction that I always observed,” said Hannah Cox, the national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Supporting the death penalty, Ms. Cox told The New York Times, is “a stance that cheapens the pro-life argument.” Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, an anti-death penalty advocacy group, said “[p]ro-life values are meaningless when they are inconsistent.” She said that “[t]he sanctity of human life applies to each and every person, innocent and guilty,” and that a person’s dignity “is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”

Ivey’s actions also were criticized in articles in The Los Angeles Times and CNN. Los Angeles Times opinion writer Scott Martelle highlighted some of the seven executions Ivey has overseen, including Walter Moody, the oldest person executed in the U.S., and Domineque Ray, a Muslim prisoner who was denied the presence of his imam during his execution. “Apparently, Ivey’s not averse to returning some of God’s sacred gifts,” Martelle wrote. “If Ivey had the courage of her convictions, she would use her authority as governor to grant clemency to [the] 181 people facing execution in Alabama. That act would … remove the cloud of hypocrisy hovering over Montgomery.” In a CNN commentary, Jay Parisi wrote: “The anti-abortion movement raises a question about capital punishment that must be answered. If the 25 white men who voted in the Alabama senate for a near-total ban on abortion were really serious about the ‘right to life,’ would they not have simultaneously banned capital punishment? The death penalty is a clear violation of this right ….” Parisi called it “deeply ironic that the seven states that have passed tighter abortion laws are also actively open to killing live human beings by lethal injection or electrocution.”

The week before Samra’s execution, Cox authored a commentary for Newsmax in which she critiqued the “inconsistency” and “hypocrisy” of arguments by people who identify themselves as pro-life, yet support capital punishment. “[A]s a Christian,” she wrote, “I believe that all life has inherent value that cannot be won or lost by anything we do, but rather that is based on all being created in the image of God.” She addressed the oft-repeated reasoning that only innocent life deserves to be protected, explaining, “there are countless innocent people caught up in the criminal justice system, and certainly on death rows. To date, one person has been exonerated from death row for every ten executions. You cannot buttress your belief in capital punishment with the reasoning that you only think innocent life should be protected." Cox said, “The vast majority of people who commit harm were first victimized numerous times — often as children — before they became violent. ... You cannot say you care about the lives of young children and want to protect them from harm, and then believe they should be executed when they are harmed and end up perpetuating the cycle of violence.”

Cox told The New York Times that the pro-life dialogue about the death penalty continues to shift, notwithstanding the events in Alabama. Growing conservative opposition to capital punishment, she said, is evidenced by the introduction of Republican-sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty in 11 state legislatures in 2019.

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” Takes a Satirical Look at Lethal Injection

Sometimes you need a joke about a cute but very angry desert rain frog to prepare an unsuspecting audience for a serious discussion of lethal-injection executions in the United States. That was the approach undertaken by Last Week Tonight, the satirical weekly HBO comedy-news show hosted by John Oliver, as Oliver addressed the deadly serious issue of lethal injection in the show’s May 5, 2019 episode. Oliver called the death penalty “a wrong, bad thing the government should not be able to do,” but said that whether you are against the death penalty or not, the evidence graphically demonstrates that lethal injection is a “horrifying” way to carry it out.

In the twenty-minute segment, Oliver outlined several of the reasons he opposes the death penalty, including wrongful convictions, lack of deterrent effect, and cost. “There’s actually no proof it has an effect on bringing down crime, [and] it’s technically more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life,” he explained, citing DPIC’s 2009 report, Smart on Crime, for data on the cost of capital punishment. “According to one study, around 4% of people sentenced to death are actually innocent, which in itself, should give us pause about the whole enterprise,” he added.

Oliver devoted most of the segment to discussion of the problems and controversy surrounding the use of lethal injection. “Let’s start with the idea that it’s medical, that is more than a bit of a stretch, because lethal injections aren’t performed by medical personnel for a pretty obvious reason,” Oliver said, quoting death-penalty researcher Michael Radelet, who said, “It violates ethical codes for physicians to be involved.” Recounting the history of lethal injection, Oliver explained that the formula was invented by an Oklahoma medical examiner who called himself “an expert in dead bodies, but not an expert in getting them that way.” Oliver described him as “just an enthusiast with a can-do attitude for killing people.” He also criticized an expert witness who has testified in support of the use of midazolam for several death-penalty states. Dr. Roswell Lee Evans, Oliver said, has been a key witness for six states, but he has never conducted any research on any kind of anesthetic. Dr. Evans presented 150 pages of printouts from drugs.com in his 300-page expert report for a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Incredibly, in our desire to find a more humane method, we’ve ended up letting amateurs both invent and administer a form of unpredictable torture,” Oliver said.

He went on to describe how the use of midazolam has created new problems with lethal injection, as it does not adequately anesthetize prisoners before a suffocating paralytic and a profoundly painful heart-stopping drug are administered. “You could be fully aware, feel like you’re suffocating, but unable to move or communicate while fire is about to be injected into your veins. And this somehow qualifies as more humane than an electric chair, which seems pretty debatable at best,” he summarized. Oliver concluded with a repudiation of lethal injection as a sanitized, humane execution method: “If the thing that’s making you comfortable with lethal injection is that it’s humane, it isn’t. Because the fundamental fact to understand about lethal injection is, it is a show. It is designed not to minimize the pain of people being executed, but to maximize the comfort of those who want to support the death penalty without confronting the reality of it, which is that it’s violent and it’s brutal, and it’s never going to be anything other than that.”

NEW VOICES: Prosecutors in Colorado and Nevada Call for Death-Penalty Repeal

Two prosecutors with different philosophical perspectives on capital punishment have called on their respective states to abolish capital punishment. Boulder County, Colorado, District Attorney Michael Dougherty (pictured, left), who opposes capital punishment in principle, and former Washoe County, Nevada, homicide prosecutor Thomas E. Viloria (pictured, right), who has successfully obtained four death verdicts, have added their voices to support efforts to repeal the death penalty in their states. Though approaching the issue with different ideologies, both prosecutors agreed that the death penalty should be eliminated because of its high cost, its ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent, and its potentially detrimental effects on victims’ families.

In comments to legislators on March 4, Dougherty said, “I’m strongly opposed to the death penalty, and it should be abolished in Colorado. … I don't believe any state or country should put its citizens to death.” The high costs in time and resources can’t be justified, he also stated, particularly in a jurisdiction such as Boulder in which juries don’t believe it should be imposed. “I talk to victims' families about it,” Dougherty said, “and one of the things we always focus on in these conversations, is it is up to the jury to decide on a sentence, and a Boulder jury would have to reach a unanimous verdict finding the death penalty sentence is morally just. As Boulder district attorney, I will not simply ignore the law that allows for use of the death penalty, but I must weigh a prosecutor’s ethical obligation to only pursue charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t believe a Boulder jury would reach a unanimous verdict finding a death sentence is justified.” Dougherty also expressed qualms about using the threat of death to obtain plea deals. “I have significant ethical concerns if people were ever to use the death penalty to motivate a guilty plea to a lesser sentence,” he said. “I would never want any prosecutor to say that a defendant has to accept life without parole in order to avoid the death penalty.”

Viloria has also come to oppose capital punishment, but he took a very different route in reaching that conclusion. In an op-ed for the Reno Gazette Journal, Viloria wrote about his experiences prosecuting five death-penalty cases and obtaining death sentences in four. “In each of the cases I prosecuted, the victim’s family members believed the death penalty would help close their emotional wounds,” Viloria said.  “Yet because none of those inmates have been executed many years later, family members haven’t received that promised closure.” He said “[d]eath penalty cases rightfully demand greater scrutiny, so murder victim family members often suffer more trauma than murder victim families in non-death penalty cases. They must endure more media coverage, court appearances, and appeals, plus, often times, a reversal of the death sentence.” Viloria also pointed to systemic problems in the administration of capital punishment, writing that the death penalty “is often unevenly and unfairly applied, partly because it is sought at the sole discretion of a particular prosecutor or prosecutorial administration. It is extremely costly to taxpayers and, because the state has no drug supply to administer an execution, it is uncertain if Nevada can even carry out the death penalty.” Viloria urged the Nevada legislators to conduct a hearing on the abolition bill “so lawmakers can decide the very serious issue of whether to maintain our broken death penalty system.”

Legislatures in Nevada and Colorado are both considering bills that would abolish the death penalty. Colorado’s bill, SB 19-182, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 3-2 vote on March 6, 2019. Nevada’s bill, AB 149, has not yet received a hearing.

THE ARTS: Death-Penalty Film, ‘Clemency,’ Wins Sundance Festival Best Drama Award

Clemency, a film exploring the psychological toll of the death penalty, has been awarded the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival on February 2, 2019. The movie, written and directed by Nigerian-American filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu, tells the story of prison warden Bernadine Williams (portrayed by Alfre Woodard) as she prepares to oversee her 12th execution in the aftermath of a botched execution. Chukwu said she was inspired to write the script after the controversial execution of Troy Davis, a Georgia prisoner with serious claims of innocence, in 2011. “[T]he morning after [Troy Davis] was executed, so many of us were sad and frustrated and angry. And I thought, ‘If we’re all dealing with these emotions, what must it be like for the people who had to kill him? You know, what is it like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life?’ And so, that was the seed that was planted, and it was a way for me to enter an exploration of humanities that exist between prison walls.”

Chukwu said she chose to focus on the perspective of the warden “to explore and challenge the system of incarceration,” and to broaden the reach and impact of the film. “I think it would really complicate people’s thinking around the death penalty and around incarceration and the humanities that are tied to incarceration, if it’s not told through the lawyer, through the defense attorney or through a protester, but somebody who is a part of the system, somebody who might embody the values that, you know, somebody who’s for the death penalty might embody,” she said. She conducted research for Clemency by meeting with death-penalty lawyers, death-row exonerees, and former wardens like Dr. Allen Ault, an outspoken critic of the death penalty. She also volunteered on a clemency campaign for Tyra Patterson, an Ohio woman who was a life sentence for a crime she says she did not commit. Patterson was paroled in 2017 after 23 years in prison.

In her speech accepting the Best Drama prize, Chukwu said she had made the film “so we as a society can stop defining people by their worst possible acts, that we can end mass incarceration and dismantle the prison-industrial complex, and root our societies in true justice and mercy and freedom, which is all tied to our joy inside, which nobody can ever incarcerate and execute.” Chukwu is the first Black woman director to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

NEW VOICES: Basketball Star Stephen Curry—“I Don’t Believe in the Death Penalty”

Stephen Curry (pictured, right, during a 2015 visit to the White House), star of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and executive producer of the upcoming documentary Emanuel, has publicly voiced his opposition to the death penalty. Emanuel tells the story of the murder of nine Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof. It is the first film produced by Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, and was co-produced by Viola Davis’s company JuVee Productions. After a January 23, 2019 advance screening at Howard University, Curry participated in a panel discussion of the movie’s themes, including faith, race relations, forgiveness, gun violence, and the death penalty. Asked about his views on the death penalty and Dylann Roof’s death sentence, Curry said, “I don’t believe in the death penalty. I feel like there are situations where an individual can be redeemed or be healed and mentally or physically with whatever the issue is and the root of why they are in that situation.” Curry also spoke about taking inspiration from the forgiveness that victims’ family members offered to Roof. “It’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes and empathize with what they’re going through. But it’s so inspiring the way they handled it. They chose forgiveness. They chose faith. They chose to support each other and the community. That alone speaks volumes for humanity and hope of humanity.”

Curry also addressed the issue of athletes becoming involved in social causes. “Athletes in general, especially in the NBA, guys are educated. They know what they’re talking about,” he said. “They know what they believe. And there’s a reason when you say something there are headlines. People want to hear what you have to say. We shouldn’t shy away from it.” He praised the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, for “support[ing] us in using our voice to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. And I think this era of athlete is unafraid to be unapologetically themselves, whatever that means.”

Emanuel will be released in select theaters on June 17, 2019, the fourth anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

Bill to Abolish Wyoming’s Death Penalty Introduced with Bipartisan Support

A bipartisan coalition of Wyoming legislators has introduced a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty. On January 15, 2019, Cheyenne Republican State Representative Jared Olsen (pictured, left) and Republican State Senator Brian Boner (pictured, right), introduced HB145, which would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a judicially imposed sentence of life without parole or life imprisonment. The bill, co-sponsored by sixteen other representatives and senators, has the backing of several legislative leaders, including Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. “You’ve got social conservatives and libertarians and that’s a little more of a mix than we’ve had before,” Olsen said. “And then if you look at the heavy hitters on the bill, we’ve got three-quarters of the House leadership on the bill.”

A coalition of outside organizations that includes he League of Women Voters of Wyoming, the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, and the ACLU of Wyoming also are supporting the repeal effort. The groups released a statement on January 16 calling the death penalty “a costly and unfair practice that does not enhance public safety or promote justice in Wyoming.” The breadth of the support distinguishes this year’s effort to abolish capital punishment from prior efforts over the past five years, according to Rep. Olsen. “The momentum and desire behind all those groups is just flourishing right now,” he said. “They’re coming to me every day, working different legislators and reporting back to me on what they’re doing. I think there’s a lot of outreach in the community as well. There’s a lot of momentum.”

Proponents of the bill say that Wyoming’s death penalty is impractical and costs too much. The state has only carried out one execution since 1976, and does not currently have any prisoners facing an active death sentence. (The death sentence imposed on Dale Wayne Eaton, who had been the state’s only death-row prisoner, was overturned in 2014, and federal appeals relating to that grant of relief are still pending.) Despite the rarity of the death penalty in Wyoming, the fiscal note that accompanies the abolition bill estimates it would cost the state $750,000 to maintain capital punishment in 2020. “We continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to maintain the death penalty,” Sen. Boner said. “I believe the availability of a life without parole sentence adequately balances the need to protect public safety while recognizing the need to reduce the strain on taxpayer resources.”

The Casper Star-Tribune editorialized in 2013 that life without parole was a better option than the death penalty for many family members of murder victims. The current abolition efforts have also gained the editorial support of the Powell Tribune, which wrote on January 22 that “[i]t seems that, for all practical purposes, the death penalty has already been abolished in Wyoming.” Noting that “like anything else that involves people, [the Wyoming legal system] will sometimes get it wrong,” the paper said that when someone is wrongfully executed, “that mistake is irreversible. And it’s a risk that’s not worth taking.”

New Voices: Former Texas Criminal Appeals Judge Suggests “Pause” on Texas Death Penalty

Retiring Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge and former prosecutor Elsa Alcala now believes that the death penalty is unreliably and discriminatorily applied in the nation’s most aggressive capital punishment state. In a new Houston Chronicle “Behind the Walls” podcast, Judge Alcala – who calls herself “a Republican hanging on by a thread” – told reporter Keri Blakinger, “I think we know enough right now to even call for a moratorium or just to pause all of this and to say, you know, ‘What is going on? Why does Texas have such a high percentage of people who get the death penalty and are executed as compared to the rest of the country?’”

Hired as a prosecutor by Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who gained notoriety as one of the nation’s deadliest prosecutors, Alcala spent nine years trying capital cases in the DA’s office of the country’s leading death-sentencing county. She then served as a county trial judge before being appointed by then-governor George W. Bush to serve on the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. As she was exposed to a range of problems in Texas death penalty cases, her views on the capital punishment evolved. She became a skeptic of capital punishment, often dissenting from denials of death-penalty relief and, in the case of Julius Murphy, called on the court to consider whether the state’s death penalty was constitutionally administered. When she left the bench, Judge Alcala accepted a policy role at the Texas Defender Service, where she will advocate for criminal justice reform. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, she joked, “[m]aybe I can have more success at the legislative level to get somebody to understand that there are some real true problems.”

In the podcast interview, Alcala cites a range of factors that changed her views about capital punishment. She discusses ineffective lawyers and parole laws that, at the beginning of her career, forced jurors to choose between a 15-year prison sentence and a death sentence for death-eligible defendants. “What do you do with these people who ... got there back to in the 90s when we know for a fact that the lawyers were not doing what they should have been doing in my mind?” Alcala asked. “And then the question is, as they come up to be executed, are we going to continue to execute them and tolerate the fact that things were done imperfectly? … I think, still percolating through all of that is that a lot of those [cases] are subject to that old parole law.”

When asked about the decline of the death penalty in Texas, Alcala said, “It is on the decline significantly. Whether it will ever go away and when it will go away – I don't know, I think it is imperfect. More accurately, I should say it is unreliable – I have lost faith in the reliability of the death penalty. And that is what underlies my involvement with the Texas Defender Service. It is: If you're going to have the death penalty, then do it correctly. You know, give them a good trial lawyer, give them a good appellate lawyer, give them a good habeas lawyer at the state level, give them a good federal lawyer and don't let racial prejudice at all influence anything that's going on.” The death penalty, she said, “is just not reliable. It’s not something that I can say is being done the way that it should be done to give you confidence in it as a punishment form. … I think, why is Texas so out of line with the rest of the country? It can't be that our people are worse, right? I mean, Texans are good people. Are our crimes worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so. Are our people worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so.  So somehow we are out of line.”

NEW VOICES: Retiring Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Predicts End of Death Penalty

As he prepared for retirement, the long-time director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) said he does not support the death penalty and believes the punishment is on its way out in Georgia and across the country. In a television interview on his final day of work as GBI director, Vernon Keenan (pictured) told WXIA-TV, Atlanta’s NBC television affiliate, that he has “never believed in the death penalty” and “[t]he day will come when we won’t have the death penalty in Georgia and in the United States.”

Keenan, a 45-year veteran of law enforcement who has run the state criminal justice agency for the past sixteen years, called the death penalty outdated and ineffective in advancing public safety. Keenan said, “I don’t believe the death penalty deters anyone. The people that commit crime, they don’t believe they’re going to get caught. The death penalty is just a way society gets retribution from the criminal.” He told WXIA that he believes declining public support for capital punishment will ultimately lead elected officials to reconsider whether the death penalty should remain part of the state’s criminal code.

Keenan’s belief that the death penalty is not a deterrent reflects the widely held beliefs of many senior criminal justice personnel. A 2008 study found that 88% of the nation’s leading criminologists believe the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime and that three-quarters of them believed that debates over the death penalty “distract legislatures from real crime solutions.” A 2008 poll of 500 police chiefs in the United States, commissioned by DPIC, found that police chiefs rank the death penalty lowest among crime fighting options as “most important for reducing violent crime.” The chiefs believed that increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy were all more important in reducing crime. More than two-thirds (69%) said that “[p]oliticians support the death penalty as a symbolic way to show they are tough on crime.” “I believe life in prison without parole is punishment enough,” Keenan said. “Probably worse than death.”

Georgia was one of only eight states to carry out executions in 2018. No Georgia jury has recommended a new death sentence since 2014.

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