NEW VOICES: U.S. Senator Santorum Rethinking Death Penalty Views

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, an outspoken conservative Catholic from Pennsylvania, is re-examining his views on capital punishment.  In response to the announcement by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops concerning their new Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, Santorum said, "I felt very troubled about cases where someone may have been convicted wrongly. DNA evidence definitely should be used when possible. I agree with the pope that in the civilized world ... the application of the death penalty should be limited. I would definitely agree with that. I would certainly suggest there probably should be some further limits on what we use it for." This is a significant shift in opinion on the death penalty for Santorum, who voted against replacing capital punishment with life without parole in 1994 and helped to block a 1996 effort to make it easier for those on death row to appeal their convictions. He said, "I never thought about it that much when I was really a supporter of the death penalty. I still see it as potentially valuable, but I would be one to urge more caution than I would have in the past." Santorum's remarks came as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a Zogby International poll showing a dramatic decline in Catholic support for capital punishment.

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Texas Governor Appoints Special Committee with Broad Powers to Review Criminal Justice Issues

In an historic move to ensure that Texas fairly applies the death penalty and that defendants are afforded proper legal protections to prove their innocence, Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed a nine-member special council with sweeping powers to review an array of legal issues ranging from police investigations to court appeals. The appointment of the panel is the first acton of its kind by a Texas governor in decades.

"I have great confidence in our justice system, but no system is perfect, and we must not be afraid of asking the questions that will lead to creating a more perfect system of justice for all the people of Texas," Gov. Perry said after issuing the Executive Order to create the panel. He noted that among the factors leading to the panel's creation were evidence testing mistakes at the Houston crime lab that affected thousands of criminal cases, court rulings barring the execution of juvenile offenders and those with mental retardation, and questions about whether Texas is properly affording full legal rights to foreign citizens imprisoned in the state.

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Ohio Inmate Becomes the 119th Innocent Person Freed from Death Row

On February 28, 2005, Ohio Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus dismissed all charges against Derrick Jamison for the death of a Cincinnati bartender after prosecutors elected not to retry him in the case. (Associated Press, March 3, 2005). The prosecution had withheld critical eyewitness statements and other evidence from the defense resulting in the overturning of Jamison's conviction in 2002. Jamison was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 based in part on the testimony of Charles Howell, a co-defendant who had his own sentence reduced in exchange for his testimony against Jamison.

The prosecution withheld statements that contradicted Howell’s testimony and that would have undermined the prosecution’s theory of how the victim died, and would have pointed to other possible suspects for the murder. Two federal courts ruled that the prosecution's actions denied Jamison of a fair trial. (Jamison v. Collins, 291 F.3d 380 (6th Cir. 2002)).

One of the withheld statments involved James Suggs, an eyewitness to the robbery. Suggs testified at trial that he had been unable to make a positive identification when the police showed him a photo array of suspects. In fact, police records show that Suggs identified two suspects, neither of which was Derrick Jamison. Additional withheld evidence consisted of a series of discrepancies between Jamison’s physical characteristics and the descriptions of the perpetrators given to police investigators by eyewitnesses.

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BOOKS: "Desire Street" Examines the Exoneration of Curtis Kyles in New Orleans

In his new book, Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), the Times-Picayune city editor Jed Horne examines the exoneration of Louisiana death row inmate Curtis Kyles and how his case has impacted the New Orleans criminal justice system. The book investigates the murder of Delores Dye, a 60-year-old housewife who was gunned down in full view of six eyewitnesses. Kyles was arrested and tried twice for the crime. After an initial mistrial, he was convicted of the crime and spent 14 years on death row before the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his original conviction. Since then, Kyles was retried unsuccessfully an additional three times and eventually freed with all charges dropped. Horne's book looks at this case and uses Kyles' experiences to demonstrate the broken criminal justice system in New Orleans, including a review of problems such as racism, the suspect nature of eyewitness identification, and the political nature of the relationship between death penalty cases and elected attorneys and judges.

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New Mexico House Votes to End Death Penalty

Members of New Mexico's House of Representatives have passed a bill to abolish the death penalty, marking the first time that either chamber of the state's legislature has passed such a measure. Representative Gail Beam, who has sponsored the abolition bill every two years since she was elected in 1996, noted that the vote was "a historic opportunity for New Mexico to take a step that's both thoughtful and practical and to join other industrialized democracies in replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole." Supporters of the measure anticipate a close vote in the Senate, where the bill must first be reviewed by the Senate Public Affairs Committee. Some Senators have called for passage of the legislation due to concerns about innocence and the fact that capital punishment fails to deter violent crime. "Lately I've been looking at all these cases where people have been sentenced to death, and with DNA and other things, they found out all these mistakes. That doesn't make any sense," said Senator Phil Griego, a former death penalty supporter who has announced he will vote for the Senate version of Beam's bill. The last time a death penalty bill reached the floor of either chamber was in 2001, when the Senate narrowly defeated an abolition bill by a vote of 21 to 20.

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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. 

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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.... I'm not sure there's anything as dramatic or as important as the death penalty in terms of my vote. I have certainly looked at legislative proposals I supported or opposed and become convinced there's room for a change of position. Times and evidence have changed. That is the wonderful thing about a mind: You can change when you hear evidence and make an intelligent choice," said Weinstein.

Weinstein noted that the costs associated with capital punishment have meant that about $170 million has already been spent on a death penalty that has not resulted in one execution. These funds, she explained, could have been used to support other criminal justice or social programs.  She also found the possibility of an unequal justice system that is tainted by racism to be "very disturbing," and she became convinced that the death penalty does not deter violent crime. "I believed when I voted for it that there was a deterrent effect. I am pretty convinced now that there isn't. No one ever thinks he's getting caught, and the likelihood that you're going to get caught, convicted and receive the death penalty is so remote," she explained.

Weinstein and other New York Assembly members recently held a series of hearings on the state's death penalty law. She will now be instrumental in determining the future course of capital punishment in the state. "I think it was impossible for anyone to sit through the testimony and not come away with the conclusion that you cannot draft a death penalty law that does not have the possibility of convicting someone who is innocent. It seems clear to me that from all of what we've heard the chance of convicting an innocent individual remains a possibility, and there's no way to rectify that. People are seeing that the justice system is not infallible," she observed (New York Times, February 28, 2005) (emphasis added). See New Voices. See also, Innocence, Costs, Deterrence, and Race.

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NEW RESOURCE: Study Finds Innocence Issue Leads to Lower Death Penalty Support

Three-quarters of Americans believe that an innocent person has been executed within the last five years and that conviction is resulting in lower levels of support for the death penalty, according to a study published in the February issue of Criminology & Public Policy. The study, conducted by researchers James D. Unnever of Radford University and Francis T. Cullen of the University of Cincinnati, found that support for capital punishment was significantly lower among both blacks and whites who believe the death penalty is applied unfairly.  Only 68.6% of respondents support the death penalty among those who believe an innocent person has been executed, versus 86.9% of the respondents who do not believe any innocent person has been executed. When life in prison without the possibility of parole was offered as an alternative sentence for capital murder, less than half of all Americans who believe an innocent person has been executed supported the death penalty. The researchers analyzed data collected by the Gallup Organization to conduct the study. Criminology & Public Policy is an academic journal published by the American Society of Criminology.

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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.

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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. "It clearly seems to be moving in a direction away from the death penalty in the last 10 years, now that you have life without parole gaining more acceptance. Maybe it just shouldn't be," Silver said referring to the death penalty.

Lentol predicted that the three committees sponsoring the series of five public hearings on the future of New York's death penalty would recommend sticking to life without parole.  Judiciary Committee Chair Helene Weinstein, an Assembly member who supported capital punishment in the past, said: "My vote 10 years ago was 10 years ago. There's a lot of new information, important information, about DNA testing, about innocent people being convicted, and so on."  Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, the third legislative leader of the hearings, strongly opposes capital punishment.

Their colleagues in Albany have also indicated a shift in support for capital punishment. "A moratorium on the death penalty, or doing nothing to restore it, seems the best way to go, because there's very little evidence the death penalty has helped New York these 10 years," said Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, who voted for the 1995 death penalty statute.  Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, also a supporter of the 1995 law who now opposes it, added, "Look at what's happening over in Connecticut; it's a circus over there with all those delays in a death penalty case. Why do we need that?"

Since 1995, an estimated $175 million has been spent on death penalty cases with no executions.

(New York Times, February 11, 2005) (emphasis added).  See New Voices, Life Without Parole, Innocence, and Costs.

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