New Voices

NEW VOICES: Retired Colorado Corrections Officer Raises Questions of Deterrence, Innocence

In a recent op-ed for The Denver Post, retired corrections officer and military veteran Pete Lister offered a critique of the death penalty, saying it fails as a deterrent, risks executing innocent people, and costs more than life without parole. "Capital punishment has not, in a single state, proven to be a deterrent to capital crime." Lister said. "Society consists of human beings who make mistakes. There are those who are, occasionally, negligent, and some who are even dishonest or unethical. We are faced with the troubling fact that if we, as a society, err in a capital case, the sentence is irreversible." Drawing on his experience as a corrections officer, Lister compared capital punishment to life without parole, saying, "involuntary incarceration is not the life of Riley that some would have you believe" and asking whether "life in prison without the hope of parole" may "actually [be] worse than a death sentence." Discussing the risk or error, he said, "When we, society, wrongfully convict someone, whether through malfeasance or neglect, or whether the technology extant at time of trial was insufficient to prove innocence, then we, society, have a responsibility to release him, to publicly acknowledge the error, and allow that citizen to move past the horror that we, society, have inflicted. How do we do that after we've put him to death?" Lister also noted that the cost of capital punishment, which he said "far exceeds the cost of incarcerati[on] even for life, ... is more than simply financial. It's been argued that voting for execution takes a terrible emotional toll on jury members." He concludes with a question: "Whether you believe the death penalty is justifiable, if you were the one being accused of a murder you had not committed, where would you stand on this issue?"

Prosecutor Says Change Needed if Wyoming Wants to Keep the Death Penalty

Natrona County, Wyoming District Attorney Mike Blonigen (pictured) recently called for a reconsideration of the state's death penalty after a federal judge overturned the death sentence of Dale Wayne Eaton, a decade after Blonigen obtained it in 2004. At the time U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson reversed Eaton's sentence in 2014, Eaton was the only person on Wyoming's death row. Judge Johnson ruled that Eaton had received ineffective representation, in part because of inadequate funding of the Wyoming Public Defender's Office. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead requested that the state legislature appropriate $1 million over the next two years to pay for Eaton's defense and another $25,000 to study whether the state is adequately funding prosecutors and public defenders. However, Johnson subsequently barred Wyoming from conducting a new death penalty hearing when the state failed to timely appoint new lawyers for Eaton who were not affiliated with the public defender's office. Blonigen said the state legislature needs to take a serious look at the issue of capital punishment: "You've got to have the resources and have the commitment to it to carry through with it," he said. "I think the Legislature has to decide do we really want this or not. If we really want it, then we have to change some things." Wyoming has not carried out an execution since 1992, and has not sentenced anyone to death since Eaton was sentenced in 2004.

Missouri Juror Who Voted for Death Says New Evidence Would Have Changed Sentencing Decision

In 1997, a St. Louis County, Missouri jury unanimously voted to sentence David Barnett to death. Eighteen years later, after learning horrific details of the physical and sexual abuse to which Barnett had been subjected as a small child, Andrew Dazey - the jury foreman in Barnett's trial - says "[t]here’s no way” he would have voted for death. At trial, Barnett's lawyer presented some evidence of his client's abuse, mental illness, and suicide attempts. However, he failed to present at least 11 available mitigation witnesses who could have provided critical additional mitigating evidence, including evidence that Barnett's mother had abused alcohol and diet pills while she was pregnant with him, wanted to abandon the newborn at the hospital, and repeatedly gave Barnett away - once to a suicidal, drug addicted prostitute and other times to a violent alcoholic man who permitted the child to be sexually abused, physically assaulted, and forced to drink dishwashing liquid, among other horrors. When U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber overturned Barnett's death sentence in August, he wrote that, with the new evidence presented on appeal, "at least one juror would have determined the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death in Mr. Barnett’s case." Juror interviews by the St. Louis Post-Disatch suggest that he was right. Dazey told the paper, "David should not be on death row." Dazey believes that “had a fraction of this information been available” at trial, a majority of jurors would have voted differently. "I have never read where there was so much rejection in one life...If this wasn’t a case I was involved in, I would have thought it was a fiction novel. Everybody failed to recognize what was going on here."  

NEW VOICES: Why Prosecutors in Texas, Pennsylvania Are Seeking Death Penalty Less Often

Prosecutors across the country are seeking the death penalty less frequently and in recent interviews two district attorneys, one from Texas and one from Pennsylvania, have given some of their reasons why. Randall County, Texas District Attorney James Farren (pictured) told KFDA-TV in Amarillo that his experience handling one particularly lengthy and costly capital case has changed how he will make decisions in future cases that are eligible for the death penalty. He said that his office has spent, "conservatively...at least $400,000" on the prosecution of Brittany Holberg, who has been on death row since 1998. Farren said the costs are too high for taxpayers and "I do not want to subject them to this kind of thing any longer." While he said he still supports the death penalty, Farren predicted that, in the near future, the U.S. Supreme Court "likely will decide society has evolved to the point that it’s no longer appropriate." In an interview with the Reading EagleJohn T. Adams, District Attorney of Berks County, Pennsylvania, says that he rarely seeks the death penalty and is "just as happy with a life sentence as I am a death sentence." If defendantants are sentenced to life without parole, Adams says, "[t]hey will not be a threat to our community ever again. And frankly, community safety is the utmost of my concerns." Adams adds, "I think you will find throughout Pennsylvania that we are seeking [the death penalty] less and less, and I think that's good."

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Use of Death Penalty in 2015

On December 16, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report." The death penalty declined by virtually every measure in 2015. 28 people were executed, the fewest since 1991. Death sentences dropped 33% from last year's historic low, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. There have now been fewer death sentences imposed in the last decade than in the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1988; and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) accounted for 86% of all executions. For the first time since 1995, the number of people on death row fell below 3,000. Public support for the death penalty also dropped, and the 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for people convicted of murder. Six people were exonerated from death row this year, bringing the total number of exonerations since 1973 to 156. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director. See DPIC's Press ReleaseView a video summarizing the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

NEW VOICES: South Dakota Republican Legislator to Propose Death Penalty Repeal Bill

South Dakota state Senator Arthur Rusch (R-Vermillion, pictured), a former trial court judge who presided over a capital trial in which a defendant was sentenced to death, said he will be introducing legislation next year to repeal the state's death penalty. Rusch said he supports repeal because of the emotional toll of capital trials on juriors and because of the financial impact of capital punishment. As a former Lincoln County circuit court judge, Rusch presided over the 1997 trial of Donald Moeller, and saw firsthand the anguish jurors experienced when they sentenced Moeller to death. Because of that experience, he said, "I think I'm more knowledgeable about the emotional toll. It's really hard on people having to make that decision." On the issue of cost, he said, "I know there’s this reaction that keeping people in jail for many, many years is expensive, but it’s nowhere near as expensive as the court costs." Death penalty abolition bills have previously failed in committee in South Dakota, but Senator Bernie Hunhoff (D-Yankton) said that the support of Republicans like Rusch could change that and allow the state to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Nebraska. "You can see that gradual transformation in Nebraska, and you’re seeing that very same thing here," said Sen. Hunhoff, who has sponsored past repeal bills in South Dakota. South Dakota has three people on death row, and has executed three people since 1976.

NEW VOICES: Retired Generals Call for Review of Status of Military Veterans Facing Death Penalty

In an op-ed for USA Today, three retired generals call for systemic review of the status of veterans on death row nationwide and urge decision-makers in capital cases to seriously consider the mental health effects of service-related PTSD in determining whether to pursue or to impose the death penalty against military veterans. Calling DPIC's new report, "Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty," "a wake-up call for an issue that few have focused on," Brigadiers General (Ret.) James P. Cullen, David R. Irvine, and Stephen N. Xenakis write that "[c]ountless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine" but defense attorneys in capital cases "are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present" this evidence and prosecutors and judges often treat it dismissively. They say that, "at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field." Citing DPIC's report, the generals discuss the cases of Andrew Brannan, James Davis, and John Thuesen, who suffered from combat-related PTSD but were sentenced to death without adequate consideration of their conditions. They contrast the often untreated "deeply debilitating" long-term wounds of combat PTSD to the physical wounds for which veterans do receive treatment. "PTSD can be treated," they write, "but in one study only about half of the veterans who needed treatment received it." They conclude with a call to action. "We should begin by determining the exact scope of this problem: Who are the veterans on death row? How could their military experience have affected their commission of a crime? How well were their disabilities investigated and presented in court? And what should be done when the system fails them? Veterans facing the death penalty deserve this assistance." (Click image to enlarge.)

Missouri Scheduled to Execute Man Despite Evidence of Intellectual Disability

Ernest Johnson (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Missouri on November 3, despite strong evidence that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. Johnson has shown signs of intellectual disability throughout his life: he walked and talked much later than his siblings, he was twice held back a grade in school, academic test scores placed him in the bottom 1-2% in math and reading, and his siblings say he struggled with basic skills like using a knife and fork. His IQ scores have consistently fallen around or below 70, a common IQ marker for individuals with intellectual disability. Despite all this evidence, Johnson faces execution because, in the words of former U.S. Attorney John N. Gallo, "the facts of Johnson’s disability were clouded in court by the prosecutor’s inflammatory rhetoric." A prosecutor argued that Johnson was not “a weak, little skinny, mentally retarded kid” and told his jury, "To decide it's more likely true than not that this guy is mentally retarded is an insult, an insult to these victims." The prosecutor also accused Johnson of intentionally lowering his IQ scores, based upon the opinion of a technician who lacked any training in administering IQ tests or making clinical observations about them. In an op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Gallo urged Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to commute Johnson's sentence to life without parole, saying, "to allow this execution to go forward would be to sanction a gross injustice." [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court stayed Johnson's execution, but not as a result of his intellectual disability. The Court ruled that Johnson was entitled to pursue an appeal to determine whether Missouri's execution protocols are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual as applied to a person with Johnson's particular medical condition. Johnson has a brain tumor, lesions, and scarring that his experts say create a substantial risk of seizures and extreme pain if executed by lethal injection with pentobarbital.]

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