New Voices

Former FBI Chief and Former Federal Judges Ask Supreme Court to Review Ohio Capital Case

Former FBI Chief and federal judge William Sessions recently joined two other former federal judges and a prosecutor urging the U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal from Ohio death row inmate John Spirko. In their brief, Sessions and his colleagues assert that the prosecution argued a theory at Spirko's trial that it had to know was at least partly suspect. "When the ultimate penalty is at issue, justice demands scrupulous conduct from prosecutors. It is not enough for a prosecutor to weigh all of the evidence, determine that a defendant is guilty, and pursue such a verdict vigorously if he holds back information unfavorable to his desired outcome," reads the group's brief.

Ohio originally charged Spirko and a co-defendant with the murder of postal worker in 1982. Evidence has since surfaced indicating that the state had photos showing that the co-defendant was 500 miles away at the time of the murder. Spirko maintains that those photos should have been turned over to the defense. The co-defendant was never tried for the murder and the state eventually dropped charges against him.

William Sessions is a member of the Constitution Project's Death Penalty Initiative, which helped organize the writing and submission of the brief on behalf of Spirko. 

NEW VOICES: Hearings in New York Help Shift Stance of Judiciary Committee's Leader

The Chair of the Judiciary Committee of the New York Assembly recently voiced her strong concerns about the state's death penalty.  Although she supported capital punishment earlier, Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein spoke about the evolution in her thinking and her particular concerns about the risk of executing the innocent: "It was an evolutionary process. But clearly the advent of DNA evidence and the dramatic number of individuals who have been exonerated and freed from death row in states around the country was something that was building in my mind....

NEW VOICES: Former New York Prison Superintendent Talks About the Emotional Costs of Capital Punishment

Retired New York prison superintendent Stephen Dalsheim recently cautioned legislators about re-instating the death penalty, noting his concerns about innocence and the toll executions take on prison employees. "You know, as I grow older, I realize maybe we can get beyond vengeance," Dalsheim said. "The death penalty is fraught with the possibility

NEW VOICES: 'Connecticut's Death Penalty Hurts Victims'

Nancy Filiault, whose sister was murdered in 2000, testified that she opposes capital punishment because the legal process further traumatizes victims' families.  At the conclusion of a Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation introduced to replace Connecticut's death penalty with a life-without-parole sentence, Filiault said that sitting through the capital trial of the man charged with the murder was "heinous, incredibly cruel, and traumatizing." The defendant, who confessed to the crime, was willing to plead guilty almost immediately if the state agreed to give him a sentence of life without parole. Prosecutors, however, insisted on seeking the death penalty, a decision that resulted in family members having to endure nearly four years of pre-trial preparations and weeks of trial. At the conclusion of the trial, the defendant received the same life-without-parole sentence he had originally requested. Filiault, who said she is struggling to find forgiveness for him, stated, "I am opposed to the death penalty, and I would like to see it abolished.... The judicial process does not work."

NEW VOICES: President Bush Expresses Concerns about Racial Disparities, Fairness and Adequate Representation in Death Cases

During his recent State of the Union address before Congress, President George W. Bush raised concerns about race, wrongful convictions, and adequate representation for those facing the death penalty:

Because one of the main sources of our national unity is our belief
in equal justice, we need to make sure Americans of all races and
backgrounds have confidence in the system that provides justice.

In America we must  make doubly sure no person is held to account
for a crime he or she did  not commit -- so we are dramatically
expanding the use of DNA evidence to  prevent wrongful conviction.

Soon I will send to Congress a  proposal to fund special training
for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for
their lives must have competent lawyers by  their side.

Key New York Legislators Say Reinstatement of Death Penalty Unlikely

Key members of the New York Legislature who supported the death penalty when it was reinstated in 1995 have changed their positions and now favor letting the law expire.  Joseph Lentol, Chair of the Codes  Committee of the N.Y. Assembly,  says he now supports life without parole instead of restoring the death penalty for which he voted in 1995. His announcement came at the conclusion of hearings into the issue. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stated that he will not be pressured into having the full Assembly vote on restoring capital punishment.

NEW VOICES: Broad Opposition to Reinstating New York's Death Penalty

Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney joined a lengthy list of high-profile New Yorkers testifying that they oppose reinstatement of New York's death penalty. During a legislative hearing in Albany, Carney testified that New York would be best served by abandoning capital punishment and sentencing offenders to life without the possibility of parole.  He cited the high costs of the death penalty and the special protections that would need to be put in place.  (Albany Times-Union, February 9, 2005).

Connecticut Legislative Hearings Exhibit Strong Opposition to the Death Penalty

A retired prison warden, victims' family members, and a former death row inmate were among the nearly 75 speakers at a state Judiciary Committee hearing in Hartford, almost all of whom proposed ending Connecticut's death penalty. Many of the witnesses noted that the death penalty brings no relief to victims' family members, fails to deter murder, risks innocent lives, and is applied in an arbitrary way.

"I'm here to tell you that I never met an inmate for whom I had no hope," said Mary Morgan Wolff, a former state deputy warden who worked 37 years for the state Department of Corrections.

Laurence Adams, a former death row inmate from Massachusetts, told the committee that he was freed in 2004 by long-forgotten evidence proving his innocence. "I'm here today because Massachusetts abolished the death penalty," he noted as he described his 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit and the likelihood that he would have been executed long before his recent exoneration if the state had not ended capital punishment.

Pages