New Voices

National Black Caucus of State Legislators Call for Repeal of Death Penalty

Saying that "race plays a decisive role in who lives and who dies" in capital cases in the United States, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) voted at its 40th annual conference on December 14, 2016, to adopt its first ever resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The resolution states that "racial bias in the criminal justice system, including the death penalty and its application, is an undisputed fact," and notes that "from slavery to Jim Crow to the present day, the death penalty has long been a tool of injustice and discrimination." The resolution says "African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and all people of color are sentenced to longer prison terms, more likely to be tried as adults, and more likely to be sentenced to death in the United States." The NBCSL joined the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and the Movement for Black Lives, which passed anti-death penalty resolutions in August 2016, in advocating for legislation to repeal capital punishment statutes across the country.  In supporting death penalty repeal legislation, the NBCSL resolution cited studies and reports showing that: Black jurors are three times more likely than other jurors to be struck from a jury in a case in which a Black defendant faces a death sentence; according to 88% of criminologists, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent against crime; the death penalty has a negative impact on the families of both the murder victim and the defendant; and 156 wrongfully convicted death row prisoners have been exonerated and released from death row. "[T]he risk of executing an innocent person is higher than ever," the resolution states, "and evidence suggests that innocent African-Americans have been executed." The NBCSL also considered the excessive cost of the death penalty and the uses to which the money saved could be used as additional reasons to abolish the death penalty. The resolution says "repeal of the death penalty will free up millions of tax dollars in cash-strapped state budgets that could be redirected to violence prevention, combating implicit bias, or supporting victims of violence in Black communities." The NBCSL offered its support for "justice reinvestment initiatives and alternative programs that address criminal justice reform" and urged the "U.S. justice department to investigate the fairness, effectiveness, and costs of the death penalty and disproportionate sentencing."  Nebraska State Senator Tanya Cook sponsored the resolution, saying that the death penalty "is not a deterrent to violent crime. Period."  In 2002, the NBCSL had passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on capital punishment.

NEW VOICES: Regretting Execution, Murder Victim's Family Urges Governor to Commute Missouri's Death Row

When Missouri executed Jeff Ferguson in 2014 for the rape and murder of Kelli Hall, her father said the Hall family "believed the myth that Ferguson’s execution would close our emotional wounds." At that time, Jim Hall told reporters "It's over, thank God." But, he now says, it wasn't. In an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune, Mr. Hall writes that his family has "come to deeply regret [Ferguson's] execution" and appeals to Governor Jay Nixon to commute the death sentences of the 25 men remaining on the state's death row. Hall says that several weeks after Ferguson was executed, his family viewed a documentary film that featured comments from Ferguson that "conveyed such genuine remore for the pain he caused both our family and his because of his horrible actions." A few months later, the Halls also learned that Ferguson had been a leader in the prison's hospice, GED, and restorative justice programs, including one in which prisoners listened to victims share the devastating impact the crimes had on their lives.The Hall family was able to forgive Ferguson as soon as they saw the film, and Mr. Hall says "my family wishes we had known of his involvement in these programs and been invited to participate. ... I'm convinced significant healing would have occurred for us all if our family had engaged in a frank conversation with him at the prison. I wish I had had the chance -- consistent with my Christian beliefs -- to have told him in person that I forgave him for what he did to our innocent and precious daughter." While applauding Governor Nixon for "his strong advocacy of restorative justice," Mr. Hall writes "[t]he death penalty ... stands as the concept's polar opposite." Commuting all of Missouri's death sentences to life in prison without parole, he says, "would be a true gesture of restorative justice."

NEW VOICES: Latinos Increasingly Vocal in Opposition to Death Penalty

Juan Cartagena (pictured), President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF (formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund), says there is "a growing understanding" among Latinos in Florida and across the country "that the death penalty is broken and it can't be fixed." In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, Cartagena explains the reasons for Latino opposition to the death penalty, especially in Florida, which has a large Latino population and is home to Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Duval counties. Those four counties are among the 16 counties that have imposed the most death sentences in the U.S. over the past five years and, Cartagena writes, "[t]hey all suffer from prosecutor misconduct, bad defense lawyers, wrongful convictions and racial bias. In Miami-Dade County from 2010 to 2015, every single person sentenced to death was black or Latino." Cartagena particularly emphasizes the historical opposition to the death penalty among Puerto Ricans, of whom increasing numbers have moved to Florida in recent years. "Puerto Rico abolished the death penalty in 1929. Its constitution, drafted in 1952, states that 'the death penalty shall not exist.' Opposition to capital punishment is a part of our legacy." As a result, he writes, "Puerto Ricans in Florida are paying close attention" to the serious flaws in Florida's death penalty, including allowing non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences–a practice that was struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year. All these concerns, he says, are reflected in a nationwide "shift away from the death penalty" among Latinos. In the last two years, three major Latino organizations have made strong public statements against the death penalty. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition adopted a position against the death penalty in March 2015, contributing to a change in the National Association of Evangelicals' stance later that year. In June 2016, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda called for repeal of the death penalty, and in August, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution urging repeal.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Dallas County, Texas Imposing Fewer Death Sentences After Years of Discrimination

With 55 executions since the 1970s, Dallas County, Texas, ranks second among all U.S. counties -- behind only Harris County (Houston), Texas -- in the number of prisoners it has put to death. It is also among the 2% of counties that account for more than half of all prisoners on death row across the country, and produced seven new death sentences and one resentence between 2010 and 2015, more than 99.5% of all U.S. counties during that period. Dallas County has a long history of prosecutorial misconduct and racial discrimination, evidenced most tellingly in its biased jury selection practices. Long-time Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, whose tenure in office spanned the years 1951 to 1987, once told an assistant prosecutor, “If you ever put another n****r on a jury, you’re fired.” An office manual first written in 1963 instructed Dallas County prosecutors not to “take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated.” In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court took notice of what Justice Anthony Kennedy described as a "culture of discrimination" that was “suffused with bias against African-Americans," and overturned the capital murder conviction of Thomas Joe Miller-El because prosecutors removed 10 of the 11 Black potential jurors on the basis of race. 51 people have been exonerated of serious crimes in Dallas County since 1989, including Randall Dale Adams, who had been sentenced to death after witnesses for the prosecution committed perjury at his trial. Dallas has shown signs of change in recent years. No new death sentences have been imposed since 2013. That year, District Attorney Craig Watkins said he would advocate for the Texas legislature to pass a Racial Justice Act, permitting death row prisoners to challenge their sentences based upon statistical evidence of racial discrimination. Former Assistant District Attorney James Fry said in 2009 that concerns about innocence had changed his views on the death penalty: "For years I supported capital punishment, but I have come to believe that our criminal justice system is incapable of adequately distinguishing between the innocent and guilty. It is reprehensible and immoral to gamble with life and death."

NEW VOICES: Special Olympics Chair Urges Supreme Court to Strike Down Texas' 'Horrific' Criteria for Determining Intellectual Disability

Timothy Shriver (pictured), the Chairman of the Special Olympics, has called on the U.S. Supreme Court to end Texas' "use of stigmatizing stereotypes" in determining whether a defendant has Intellectual Disability and is therefore ineligible for execution. On November 29, the Court will hear argument in Moore v. Texas, a case challenging Texas' use of the “Briseño factors”—a set of unscientific criteria based in part on the fictional character of Lennie Smalls from the novel "Of Mice and Men"—to determine whether capitally charged prisoners have significant impairments in adaptive functioning that could qualify them for an Intellectual Disability diagnosis. In a column in TIME magazine, Shriver called Texas' method of adjudicating Intellectual Disability "horrific." He wrote, "[t]he inaccurate Texas standard reinforces one of the most damaging stereotypes about people with intellectual disability—that they can’t be 'good' at anything." In Moore's case, the judge relied on the fact that Moore was able to play pool and earned money mowing lawns as evidence that he did not really have an intellectual disability. Shriver applauded the Supreme Court's 2002 decision, Atkins v. Virginia, which barred the death penalty for defendants with Intellectual Disability. His article highlights some of the reasons people with Intellectual Disability should be exempt from execution: "people with intellectual disabilities have abilities but also challenges: they are less able to advocate for themselves; more likely to be coerced into behaviors they don’t understand; less likely to understand the implications of their actions and at higher risk for unreliable trials and wrongful convictions." Shriver encouraged the Court to bolster that protection by ending Texas' practices, which he said contravene established medical and clinical criteria: "It’s time for the Supreme Court to remind our nation that the Constitution and the vision of rights it embodies have no place for ill-informed and deadly stigmas."

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Alabama's Leading Death Sentencing County Elects Prosecutors Who Oppose Capital Punishment

Jefferson County, Alabama is among both the 2% of counties that account for more than half of all executions in the U.S. and are responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death row across the country. It led the state in new death sentences from 2010-2015, putting more people on death row than 99.5% of U.S. counties. All five of the defendants sentenced to death in those cases were Black. But the county may soon see a decline in death sentences as voters appear to have ousted the county's two elected district attorneys in favor of prosecutors who say they are "personally opposed" to the death penalty and plan to use it rarely. Charles Todd Henderson was elected as district attorney of Jefferson's Birmingham division, and Lynneice Washington leads a tight race in the Bessemer division, where votes will be recounted on November 21. Henderson has criticized Alabama's judicial override policy, which allows judges to impose a death sentence even when a jury recommends life, saying "We serve at the will of the people .... We should honor what the people say." Alabama is the only state to permit such overrides and Jefferson County judges overrode jury's recommendations for life in 44% of the 18 death penalty cases from the county that were decided on direct appeal between 2006-2015. All 18 cases involved a non-unanimous jury, an outlier practice that was struck down by state courts in Delaware and Florida this year, leaving Alabama as the last state to allow it, and in every one of those cases, defense lawyers presented less than one day’s worth of mitigation evidence. Henderson also said he supports reviewing current Jefferson County death penalty cases for possible wrongful convictions, citing the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, who was released in 2015 after spending 30 years on death row. Hinton's trial was tainted by racial bias, inadequate representation, and junk science. Washington echoed Henderson's concerns, saying, "I am personally opposed to the death penalty because there have been so many people who were put on death row who were later found to be innocent." In addition to Hinton, two other wrongfully convicted death row prisoners from Jefferson County also have been released. Wesley Quick, who was just 18 years old at the time of the murder for which he was twice wrongly sentenced to death, was acquitted of all charges in his third trial in 2003. Montez Spradley was sentenced to death by a judge who overrode a 10-2 jury recommendation for life. It was later discovered that a star witnesses for the prosecution—Spradley's disgrunted ex-girlfriend—had been paid $10,000 for her testimony, and although the judge had personally approved half of that payment, neither she nor the prosecution disclosed it to the defense. Spradley entered a no-contest plea in exchange for his freedom in 2015.  

NEW VOICES: Former Reagan Attorney General and Former Manhattan Prosecutor Speak Out In Possible Innocence Case

Edwin Meese III (pictured), who served as U.S. Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, and Robert Morgenthau, the long-time district attorney of Manhattan who served as a U.S. attorney under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, believe that Alabama death row prisoner William Kuenzel is innocent and are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case. Meese and Morgenthau belong to different political parties and take opposing views on capital punishment, but both believe that Kuenzel was wrongfully convicted and condemned for the 1987 murder of a convenience store clerk and deserves a chance to present new evidence. Kuenzel was implicated in the murder after a car belonging to Harvey Venn, a boarder in Kuenzel's home, was seen near the crime scene. He was convicted after Venn admitted to having driven the car, but claimed that Kuenzel had actually shot the clerk, and a 16-year-old passenger in a car that was passing by the store testified that she had seen Venn and Kuenzel inside the store. Alabama prosecutors offered both men a deal for leniency if they agreed to plead guilty and testify against one another. Venn agreed and spent only ten years in prison, but Kuenzel maintained his innocence and rejected the deal. Since the trial, previously-withheld evidence has emerged that supports Kuenzel's innocence claim, including police notes of an initial interview with Venn in which he said another man was in the car with him, and the grand jury testimony of the passerby in which the girl said that she "couldn't really see" the faces of the men in the store. In an amicus brief, Meese calls the withholding of that evidence "the very worst kind of Brady violation, which resulted in condemning to death a defendant whose conviction was obtained in violation of the Constitution and who is very likely actually innocent." Morgenthau said of Kuenzel, "[t]here's no possible way he could have committed the murder." Meese and Morgenthau also share a concern about the quality of representation in capital cases, and are calling for automatic appellate review of the competence of defense counsel.

Death Row Exonerees Speak Out on State Death Penalty Ballot Questions

As voters get set to cast ballots on death penalty questions in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, U.S. death row exonerees from across the country have been scouring those states in an effort to inform the public of the risks of wrongful executions. On September 19, 17 of the nation's 156 death-row exonerees appeared at a California press conference advocating approval of Proposition 62, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole plus restitution, and defeat of Proposition 66, which seeks to place limits on the capital appeals process. Many, including California exoneree Shujaa Graham (pictured), Florida exoneree Juan Melendez, Arizona exonerees Ray Krone and Debra Milke, and Louisiana exoneree Damon Thibodeaux urged a no vote on Prop. 66, arguing that they would have been executed without the chance to prove their innocence if a measure like it had been effect when they were sentenced to death. A few days earlier, Illinois exoneree Randy Steidl and Ohio exoneree Kwame Ajamu spoke to the Oklahoma Republican Liberty Caucus, a group described by its chairman, Logan County Commissioner Marven Goodman, as "disenfranchised conservatives" who, as a result of their distrust of government regulation are questioning the death penalty. Steidl and Ajamu told the caucus about their wrongful capital convictions and raised concerns about the effects of limitations on judicial review under Oklahoma ballot question 776, which would bar Oklahoma courts from ruling that the imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel or unusual punishment or "contravene[d] any provision of the Oklahoma Constitution." Steidl, who was wrongfully convicted in Illinois in 1987 and exonerated in 2004, stressed the importance of appellate review in securing his exoneration: "Without the judicial review I finally got, I’d be dead today or at least be languishing in prison," he said. "I really believe that Oklahoma’s track record so far is not very pretty when you’ve got 10 people that’s been exonerated." And in Nebraska, Maryland's Kirk Bloodsworth, the first former death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA, taped an ad on behalf of Retain A Just Nebraska, the advocacy committee opposing a voter referendum that could overturn the state legislature's repeal of Nebraska's death penalty. In the ad, Bloodsworth says: "You could free a man from prison, but you cannot free him from the grave. You can not un-execute someone. ... If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal record or criminal history, it could happen to anybody in America.”

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