From 1999 to 2004, Dr. Johnny Glenn was the only forensic pathologist performing autopsies in the poorest part of Alabama. He was assisted only by lab technicians as he performed hundreds of autopsies annually, including at least one death penalty case. After his abrupt departure, it was discovered that Glenn routinely put aside his notes and often failed to finish final reports or diagrams that are crucial to death investigations.
"Justice Talking" on National Public Radio recently addressed current death penalty issues, including an examination of the controversy surrounding lethal injections. The program, which is available online, featured an overview of the U.S. death penalty by professor John Blume, founder and director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project at Cornell University, and an interview with Deborah Denno, a professor of law at Fordham University who is one of the nation's leading scholars on the death penalty and lethal injection. The program also included contrasting views about lethal injection and other issues with New York Law School professor Robert Blecker and Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Richard Dieter. Other guests included Bryan Stevenson, who heads the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, death row exoneree Harold Wilson, and Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston, who provided an overview of recent Court cases dealing with the death penalty. The program aired on March 26, 2007.
Pennsylvania has convened a commission of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers and victims' advocates to study the causes of wrongful convictions and make recommendations for preventing them in the state. Forensic errors, mistaken eyewitness identifications and false confessions have led to wrongful convictions around the nation, including 9 people from Pennsylvania who have been exonerated by DNA evidence.
The commission of 40 members was sponsored by Pennsylvania State Senator Stewart Greenleaf and will be chaired by Duquesne University law professor John T. Rago, who heads the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Sciene and Law. Among those on the panel are Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr., public defender Michael Machen, police commissioner Charles Moffat, Common Pleas Senior Judge Robert E. Colville, as well as an exonerated death row inmate, a Johnstown priest, and a representative from the state attorney general's office. The committee will review the cases of 198 DNA exonerees around the country to identify the most common causes of wrongful convictions. It will then issue a series of policy change recommendations that attempt to address the problems they identify.
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard allowed two men to be executed by lethal injection after prison officials indicated that a physician and a nurse at the execution would monitor a type of brain-wave machine to ensure that the inmates were unconscious and not in pain when the paralyzing and heart-stopping drugs were injected. However, a deposition given in November 2006 by Central Prison warden Marvin Polk (pictured) is now raising questions about whether the judge was misled. In his testimony, Polk disclosed that a physician did not read the brain-wave machine, a bispectral index monitor (BIS), to monitor the inmates' consciousness during the state's past two executions. In light of Polk's testimony, lawyers for the two executed men are considering a wrongful death lawsuit and a motion asking Judge Howard to hold prison officials in contempt.
"Sacco and Vanzetti" is an 80-minute-long documentary that tells the story of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who were accused of a murder in 1920, and executed in Boston in 1927 after a controversial trial. It is the first major documentary film about this landmark story, which came to symbolize the bias against immigrants by some in America. At the time of their execution, millions of people in the U.S. and around the world protested on their behalf, and now - nearly eighty years later - the story continues to have great resonance.
Jim Davidsaver, a 20-year veteran with the Lincoln Police Department in Nebraska, recently wrote a column outlining his support for legislation that would have repealed the state's death penalty. Davidsaver said he supported the measure, which failed to pass into law, because the death penalty does not deter crime and is too expensive. He noted that in his years of service with the police force he witnessed many horrific crime scenes, but none of the accused murderers was ever deterred by the death penalty. He wrote:
As a career law enforcement officer, I considered myself an interested spectator as the Legislature debated the bill, LB476, sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers, that would have replaced the state's death penalty with mandatory life imprisonment without parole and allowed the victim’s family to seek restitution.
Alabama is the only state that does not provide attorneys for indigent death row inmates throughout their state appeal. Lawyers representing some of those on death row in the state will soon ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case challenging this practice. The attorneys will ask the Court to determine whether people facing execution have a constitutional right to an attorney as part of their right of meaningful access to the courts. Alabama maintains that it should be able to go it alone in this area even at the risk of executing the unjustly sentenced or the innocent.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that criminal defendants are entitled to lawyers for their trials, and this right was extended to their first round of appeals. But in 1989 in Murray v. Giarratano, the Court indicated that state habeas petitions may be a different matter. The decision is widely understood to require only that inmates have access to adequate prison law libraries. Justice Anthony Kennedy concurred in the opinion, but with the stipulation that the state being reviewed, Virginia, was providing adequate representation to those on death row. He noted in his opinion, "The complexity of our jurisprudence in this area makes it unlikely that capital defendants will be able to file successful petitions for collateral relief without the assistance of persons learned in the law."
Prior to their dismissals, three federal prosecutors whose firings are under scrutiny by Congress were engaged in a struggle with the Justice Department over its expanded pursuit of the federal death penalty. Paul Charlton of Arizona, Margaret Chiara of Michigan, and Kevin Ryan of California were all criticized by Justice officials for failing to seek death sentences as part of a broader use of the federal death penalty begun by former Attorney General John Ashcroft and continued by Alberto Gonzales. As part of the Department's efforts, which included seeking the death penalty in jurisdictions without statues of their own, the Attorney General would override federal prosecutors, and insist that they seek death sentences. Though this happened to Charlton, Chiara and Ryan, it was not cited as a reason for their dismissals. The Justice Department did, however, mention in at least one of their dismissals that they had "no assurance that DOJ priorities/policies [were] being carried out."
After decades of maintaining a position that the government should have the legal right to impose capital punishment, the Chicago Tribune is now calling for abolition of the death penalty. Noting concerns about innocence, the arbitrary nature of the punishment, and the public's shift away from the death penalty, the Tribune announced on March 25 that, "The evidence of mistakes, the evidence of arbitrary decisions, the sobering knowledge that government can't provide certainty that the innocent will not be put to death--all that prompts this call for an end to capital punishment. It is time to stop killing in the people's name."