Inmates With Severe Mental Illness Underscore Broader Death Penalty Problems

In his final article for 2006, columnist Richard Cohen chose to highlight the "madness of the death penalty" and to draw attention to the execution of those with mental illness. Cohen used the case of Gregory Thompson, a severely mentally ill Tennessee death row inmate, to illustrate some of the broader problems with the death penalty.

Thompson is delusional, paranoid, schizophrenic, and depressed. He takes 12 pills every day and receives twice-monthly anti-psychotic injections. Cohen notes that although there is no doubt about his guilt, there is grave doubt "about the constitutionality, not to mention the decency, of executing an insane man. . . . The idea, according to a recent account of his case in the Wall Street Journal, is to make him sane enough to be put to death." Cohen voices concern about a broad range of uncertainties with the death penalty, including the danger of convicting innocent people. He notes that Americans are growing more skeptical of capital punishment and that they may be "beginning to understand that we just don't need the death penalty, that it makes us no safer and demeans us as a people."

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Pennsylvania Commission to Study Innocence Cases

Pennsylvania State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced the formation of an advisory committee to examine the cases of people who have been wrongly convicted in the state.  The commission will consist of about 30 members drawn from the state's prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials, police, victim advocates and others. The commission will report its findings and recommendations to the Senate by Nov. 30, 2008.

"[W]e're finding people on death row and otherwise who have been mistakenly convicted of crimes," Greenleaf said. "All too often, we forget that justice is also served when the innocent are acquitted."

Among those exonerated in the past was Nicholas Yarris, who became the first person freed from the state's death row by DNA testing when he was released in January 2004. Yarris had spent 22 years in prison after he was convicted of the rape and murder.
(Associated Press, Nov. 28, 2006).  See Innocence and Recent Legislation.

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NEW RESOURCES: Papers from "The Faces of Wrongful Conviction" Symposium

The Fall 2006 edition of the Golden Gate University Law Review contains papers from the recent Symposium entitled "The Faces of Wrongful Conviction" that was held at UCLA in April 2006.  The journal includes articles by Simon Cole on fingerprint evidence, by Alexandra Natapoff on the use of snitches, by Craig Haney on expanding beyond innocence when examining injustices in capital cases, and by Thomas Sullivan on the recording of custodial interviews.
(37 Golden Gate Law Review 1 (2006)). See Innocence and Law Reviews.

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BOOKS: The Dreams of Ada

"The Dreams of Ada" by Robert Mayer tells a story strikingly similar to that recounted by John Grisham in "The Innocent Man."  Each book involves the murder of a young woman from Ada, Oklahoma in the early 1980s.  In both cases, there are two defendants whose convictions rely on little probative evidence but involve "confessions" that emerged from a dream.  Both prosecutions were led by Bill Peterson and both involved the same jail-house informant.  The defendants in Mayer's book, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, were both sentenced to death, as was Ron Williamson in Grisham's book.  Williamson and his co-defendant were eventually freed when DNA evidence excluded them from the crime scene.  Ward and Fontenot remain in prison for life, after their death sentences were overturned.  In their case, there was no DNA evidence to provide a more definitive answer.  At the time of their trial, no body had even been discovered.  Both Mayer and Grisham believe that Ward and Fontenot were victims of a complete miscarriage of justice. 

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NEW VOICES: Federal Appeals Court Judge of the Fifth Circuit Expresses Legal and Moral Problems with the Death Penalty

Judge Carolyn Dineen King of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was the main speaker at the "Red Mass" on October 4 at the Catholic cathedral in Corpus Christi, Texas.  The Red Mass is an annual liturgy held for members of the legal profession near the beginning of the judicial term.  Its traditions extend back to 13th century Europe.  Judge King spoke about the death penalty, both from her perspective as a judge and as a Catholic.  In both areas, she raised strong concerns about the application of the death penalty in the U.S.

Judge King described the recent legal history of the death penalty, with a particular emphasis on Texas' statute.  She noted that the court of which she is a member mistakenly interpreted a Supreme Court ruling, and then many executions occurred over many years before the Supreme Court corrected the error.  She also expressed serious misgivings about the risk of executing the innocent.  Judge King stated:

[T]he injustice of executing capital defendants under laws that were for so many years undeveloped and in flux is troubling. Think about it. My court's opinion . . . was on the books for twelve years before the Supreme Court struck it down. During those twelve years, many defendants were executed without the constitutionally-required judgment by the jury on whether the defendant was sufficiently morally culpable to be sentenced to death. That is not to say that those defendants were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. But it could certainly lead one to ask why, if the jury's judgment about moral culpability was constitutionally required, so many went to their deaths without it.

Also profoundly troubling is the risk that an innocent man will be executed. I must say that from my experience with capital cases, there is usually a great deal of evidence that the defendant is, in fact, guilty. But the lengthy investigation of the Houston crime lab, which exposed evidence of serious problems such as falsified test results, including DNA test results, and the tailoring of reports to fit police theories, certainly suggests that even scientific evidence, to which we normally attach considerable confidence, can be flawed. Only God's justice is perfect justice. The assessment of the death penalty, however well designed the system for doing so, remains a human endeavor with a consequent risk of error that may not be remediable.

In discussing her moral views as a Catholic, she clearly indicated that those views did not dictate her constitutional rulings from the bench.  Nevertheless, she finds a strong denunciation of the death penalty in the U.S. in Catholic teaching, especially given the alternative sentence of life in prison without parole.  Under that teaching, vengeance is not a legitimate justification for the death penalty.  She stated:

Catholics, the people of life, have an opportunity to advocate to our legislators changes in our laws that will align them more closely with the moral law. For the solution to the problems that we face with the death penalty is a political one (not a judicial one), and each of us, as a Catholic citizen and voter, is called upon to promote it.
. . .
The Catholic bishops have recently issued a call to the Catholic community, inviting every Catholic to join in the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, not as a partisan campaign but as a moral commitment.
. . .
The Church's campaign has been long in coming, centuries long, but at last it is here and all of should actively and prayerfully support it.

(South Texas Catholic News, Oct. 20, 2006).  Read Judge King's entire statement.  See New Voices and Innocence.

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Pennsylvania Man Freed From Death Row

Dennis Counterman was freed from a Pennsylvania courtroom on October 18, 2006 after serving many years on the state's death row.  Counterman had been convicted and sentenced to death in 1990 for allegedly setting a fire in his own house that resulted in the death of his three children.  That conviction was overturned in 2001 because prosecutors had withheld evidence from the defense indicating that the oldest child had a history of fire-setting. 

At Counterman's orignial trial, the prosecution witnesses said that a burn pattern was discovered that indicated an accelerant was used, even though no accelerant was found.  At later hearings, however, an expert hired by the prosecution said that the prosecution's theory of how the fire started "is not properly supported by today's standards."

Rather than face the uncertainty of another trial, Counterman agreed to enter an Alford plea, that is one in which the defendant does not admit guilt but agrees that the prosecution might have been able to convince a jury of his guilt.  The plea was to a charge of third-degree murder and carried a maximum term of 18 years in prison.  Since Counterman had already served the maximum time, he was released immediately by Lehigh County Judge Lawrence Brenner.  After his release, Counterman said, "I am more frustrated than angry.  I spent all this time for something I didn't even do."

(The Morning Call (PA), Oct. 19, 2006).  See also Maurice Possley's article in the Oct. 18, 2006 edition of the Chicago Tribune about faulty arson investigations in other cases. 

See Innocence and Arbitrariness. 

(DPIC Note: Cases such as that of Dennis Counterman are not counted as part of DPIC's Innocence List, which includes only people cleared of all charges related the original crime.)

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Mississippi Death Row Inmate Argues Killing Was In Self-Defense

Corey Maye was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Prentiss, Mississippi, on the day after Christmas in 2001.  The police officer was part of a drug raid on a neighbor's apartment.  Maye claims that the police broke into his duplex unannounced and that he fired his gun in defense of himself and his 18-month-old daughter.  Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Michael Eubanks recently ruled that Maye was entitled to a new sentencing hearing because his defense counsel provided inadequate representation.  The judge said that he would rule later on Maye's motion for a new trial or a verdict of not guilty.  The case also has racial overtones because Maye is black and the police officer who was killed, Ron Jones, was white and the son of the town's police chief.

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NEW BOOK: "The Innocent Man" by John Grisham

On October 10th, 2006, John Grisham's first non-fiction book, The Innocent Man, will be released.  The book is the compelling true story of Ron Williamson, a former hometown baseball hero of Ada, Oklahoma, who was convicted in 1988 of raping and murdering Debbie Carter.  In 1999, Williamson was exonerated of the crime after serving eleven years on death row. In the context of this case, Grisham addresses many of the fundamental issues that surround the death penalty in the United States. He describes the poor legal representation that Williamson received and explores the mind of a mentally ill man. There are detailed accounts of life on death row and the execution process.  In addition to being a fascinating and well-told story, the book shows how innocent people can end up on death row. Grisham has written numerous international bestsellers, including The Firm, A Time to Kill and The Pelican Brief. (The Innocent Man, Random House 2006). See Innocence and Books. A total of 123 people have been freed from death row following their exoneration since 1973.

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NEW RESOURCE: NPR Radio Interview

NPR Radio interviews North Carolina Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr. regarding the new "Innocence Board." This board will investigate claims of innocence among prisoners.
Click Here to Listen to the Interview

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New York Man Once Convicted of Rape and Murder Freed Through DNA

Jeffrey Deskovic had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1990 for the rape and murder of a high school classmate in New York.  He was freed from prison on September 20 after DNA evidence from the crime was matched with another man who also confessed to the murder.  The other man was already in prison for a murder in the same county.

The DNA evidence that did not match Deskovic was presented at his original trial.  However, Deskovic had confessed to the crime to the police after six hours of questioning, and the jury chose to believe the confession over the scientific evidence.  The prosecution's theory of the case was that the DNA from the victim was the result of consensual sex with another person, and hence was unrelated to the crime and Deskovic's involvement.

Mr. Deskovic was freed after Barry Scheck from the Innocence Project approached the Westchester County District Attorney about the case and she agreed to run the evidence through a national DNA databank.  The Innocence Project reported that 184 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989.

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