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BOOKS: "False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent"

A new book written by Jim and Nancy Petro offers a comprehensive analysis of how miscarriages of justice result in wrongful convictions. Jim Petro, a former Republican Attorney General of Ohio, has observed the justice system from all sides and was appalled by the frequent mistakes in the criminal justice system.  As attorney general, he advocated along with the Innocence Project to help free a man wrongfully convicted of murder and rape.  In “False Justice,” the Petros expose a series of myths and misconceptions about the American justice system, such as, Only the guilty confess; and Wrongful conviction is the result of innocent human error.  These misconceptions, they argued, not only prevent juries from carefully weighing evidence but also prevent local judges and prosecution teams from examining cases in an unbiased fashion. "False Justice" will be released in October.

Texas Commission Says Case of Executed Man Based on Flawed Science

In a preliminary report, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recently found that fire investigators used flawed science in the case that led to the death sentence and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was executed in 2004, having been convicted of setting the fire that killed his three children. Willingham had always maintained his innocence and said the fire could have been an accident. The Commission acknowledged that new fire investigation standards were developed in 1992, the year Willingham was convicted, but said the standards were not adopted nationally until several years later. Hence, the Commission did not find professional negligence on the part of the investigators because they were relying on standards available at the time.  Nevertheless, the jury convicted Willingham on the basis of the flawed evidence and Texas may have executed an innocent man.  Patricia Cox, Willingham’s cousin, told the Commission, "Even though there may not have been any malice or intent by fire investigators about not being informed on current standards, that doesn't excuse the fact that, based on this misinformation, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, and that can't be corrected."

PUBLIC OPINION: California Poll Shows Increase in Support for Life Without Parole

A recent poll conducted in California showed that support for life without parole for first-degree murder has increased among registered voters since 2000. When asked which sentence they preferred for a first-degree murderer, 42% of registered voters said they preferred life without parole and 41% said they preferred the death penalty. In 2000, when voters were asked the same question, 37% chose life without parole while 44% chose the death penalty. Some commentators say that the increased support for life without parole and decreased support for the death penalty is very telling. Stefanie Faucher, associate director of Death Penalty Focus, said "I think they reflect a growing preference for life without parole as an alternative. It is more cost-effective, is carried out more quickly and doesn't drag victims through years of appeals." The Field Poll revealed that 70% of California’s registered voters support the death penalty, but Faucher says that figure represents support for the death penalty “in the abstract” and is less revealing than people’s views on what punishment they prefer.

NEW VOICES: Retired Prosecutor Says Death Penalty Does Not Serve Families of Homicide Victims

Dan Glode, a former district attorney in Lincoln County, Oregon, recently criticized the death penalty for "the enormous expense in dollars and emotional capital [it takes] for the families of homicide victims."  Writing in the Newport News-Times, he experienced crime both as a prosecutor and as a relative of a murder victim: “The emotional cost on the families of the victim is also enormous. I have some knowledge of this, as a close relative of mine was murdered back in the 1980s. It took several years to finally catch those responsible, and I realized I just wanted it over. When they were finally tried and incarcerated, I knew I could move on. The justice system, as good or imperfect as it may be, cannot make the victim’s family whole again, but it can reduce the trauma by not dragging things out interminably. In these capital cases, the process goes on and on. Sometimes these family members have to go through additional trials if the cases get kicked back for re-trial, and the hurt begins anew. The wound never heals; it doesn’t even scar over."

Five Myths About the Death Penalty

David Garland, a professor of law and sociology at New York University, recently addressed some common myths regarding the death penalty in America.  In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Garland provided information challenging the common wisdom about capital punishment:

The United States is a death penalty nation. Garland contends that, in fact, the death penalty is rarely imposed today. It has been abolished in 15 states and in the District of Columbia. Of the 35 states that have the death penalty, one-third rarely impose death sentences, and another one-third impose death sentences but hardly ever carry them out. Eighty percent of executions are carried out in the South, largely in Texas and in Virginia.

The United States is out of step with Europe and the rest of the Western world. Since 1981, when France stopped executing people by the guillotine, Europe has been an abolitionist continent. However, for most of the past 200 years, American states have been actively working towards death penalty reform. Michigan abolished the death penalty for all ordinary crimes in 1846, a century before most European nations did so.

This country has the death penalty because the public supports it. Even though polls show that a majority of respondents say they support the death penalty, it is less clear whether people are well-informed about the issue, have given the matter much thought, or have considered alternatives to capital punishment.

FOREIGN NATIONALS: Texas Execution Delayed Following State Department Request

A hearing to set an execution date for Texas death row inmate Humberto Leal was postponed after the presiding judge received a letter from a high-ranking U.S. State Department official. Leal, a Mexican citizen who was sentenced to death in 1995, had already been transferred to Bexar County Jail for the hearing to set the execution date. Harold Hongju Koh, a top legal adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote the judge requesting an indefinite postponement while Congress is working on legislation that could affect Leal’s case. Leal is one of 51 Mexican citizens included in a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (Avena and Other Mexican Nationals) that Mexican foreign nationals on U.S. death rows were not given proper notification of their rights to contact their foreign consulate. Koh said that the case is important in U.S. foreign relations, and wrote that, “The Executive Branch is engaging in consultations with Congress and with the Government of Mexico to determine how best to ensure the United States complies with its obligations under Avena.”

Federal Inmate Faces Execution Despite Clear Evidence of Intellectual Disability

Bruce Webster faces a federal execution despite new evidence--including evaluations by three doctors--indicating he is intellectually disabled. Although the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of the “mentally retarded” (now referred to as “intellectually disabled”) in 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in April denied Webster’s request for a hearing on his mental capacity claim. The court found that Webster had exhausted all his appeals and that the court could not consider new evidence unless it related to Webster's innocence.  The fact that the new evidence would make him ineligible for the death penalty under the constitution was insufficient to grant him a hearing.  Judge Jacques Wiener, writing for the Fifth Circuit, contended that the court was limited because Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996: “We today have no choice but to condone just such an unconstitutional punishment.” The judge agreed that the evidence would show that Webster was intellectually disabled, "If the evidence that Webster attempts to introduce here were ever presented to a judge or jury for consideration on the merits, it is virtually guaranteed that he would be found to be mentally retarded." David Bruck, a death penalty expert at Washington and Lee University law school said, "It's an outrageous situation. Sometimes the law just doesn't fit the facts. This is one of those times."

PUBLIC OPINION: Majority of Illinois Voters Supports Alternatives to the Death Penalty

A recent poll conducted by Lake Research Partners found that a majority of Illinois registered voters prefer an alternative sentence to the death penalty for those who commit murder. The pollsters surveyed voters in April, and found that 43% believed that the penalty for murder should be life with no possibility of parole and a requirement to make restitution to the victim’s family. Another 18% felt that the penalty for murder should be life in prison with no possibility of parole. Only 32% responded that the penalty for murder should be death. The poll also found only 39% of registered voters even know that Illinois has the death penalty. Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, attributed this to a declining murder rate and a declining use of the death penalty in the state. There has not been an execution in Illinois since 2000, when then Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in the state. Between 1977, when capital punishment was reinstated in Illinois, and the moratorium in 2000, Illinois freed 13 men from death row and put 12 to death.