Oklahoma Board Closely Split on First Execution for 2012

On December 5, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board narrowly voted (3-2) to deny clemency to death row inmate Gary Welch, the first person scheduled to be executed in the country in 2012.  Welch was sentenced to death in 1996 for a murder that started as a fight related to a drug deal.  Welch said the victim first stabbed him with a knife and he tried to defend himself.  "To me, this was life or death. It was just luck that I survived," said Welch.  "My intentions were never to kill him.  But I also didn't intend for him to kill me either."  Welch's co-defendant, Claudie Conover, was also initially sentenced to death, but the sentence was later reduced to life without the possibility of parole.  Conover died of natural causes in 2001.  In Oklahoma, the governor makes the final decision on clemency, but must first have a positive recommendation from the Parole Board.

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NEW VOICES: Former Texas Governor Supports Actions by Oregon's Governor

In a recent op-ed in Oregon's Statesman Journal, former Texas Governor Mark White (pictured) applauded Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s decision to grant a reprieve to death row inmate Gary Haugen and to halt all executions in the state.  Governor White wrote, “I think Kitzhaber's decision is respectable and courageous. In Oregon, as in Texas, it is clearly within the constitutional authority of the governor to grant reprieves and commutations. With that authority comes the responsibility to ensure the state's laws are carried out fairly and within the state and federal constitutions. He concluded that Oregon's death penalty as a system was not passing that test.”  Governor White also said that Governor Kitzhaber’s decision now allows time for the state to study the death penalty and address serious concerns about the system.  Governor White concluded, “Such a decision should be welcomed by all who value justice, regardless of their personal beliefs about the death penalty.” Read full op-ed below.

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CLEMENCY: Ohio Death Row Inmate Granted Clemency, Citing 'Brutally Abusive Upbringing'

On September 26, Ohio Governor John Kasich (pictured) granted clemency to Joseph Murphy, commuting his death sentence to life without parole, citing the defendant's horrific childhood. Murphy was scheduled for execution on October 18. The Ohio Parole Board had unanimously recommended sparing Murphy's life, citing evidence from Murphy's childhood that indicated he was beaten, starved and sexually abused.  The Parole Board also cited a 1992 Ohio Supreme Court decision in which late Justice Moyer said he knew of no other case in which a defendant "was as destined for disaster as was Joseph Murphy."  Governor Kasich issued the following statement regarding the clemency: "Joseph Murphy’s murder of Ruth Predmore was heinous and disturbing and he deserves—and continues to receive—severe punishment. Even though as a child and adolescent Murphy suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him, it does not excuse his crime.... After examining this case in detail with counsel I agree with Chief Justice Moyer, the National Association of Mental Illness and the Parole Board’s unanimous 8-0 decision that considering Joseph Murphy’s brutally abusive upbringing and the relatively young age at which he committed this terrible crime, the death penalty is not appropriate in this case. Thus, I have commuted his sentence to life in prison with no chance for parole."

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Georgia Board Denies Clemency for Troy Davis

After a hearing on September 19, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Troy Davis who is facing execution on September 21, despite presentation of testimony casting doubt on his guilt.  Brian Kammer, one of Davis's attorneys, said, "I am utterly shocked and disappointed at the failure of our justice system at all levels to correct a miscarriage of justice." Davis's claims of innocence have received international attention, and calls for clemency have been made by Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter, former FBI Director William Sessions, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher and others. Doubts about Davis's guilt were raised when some prosecution witnesses changed their stories after giving testimony against Davis, including accusations pointing to another suspect as the murderer of a police officer in Savannah. The Board heard testimony from a juror in Davis's original trial who now says she has too much doubt about his guilt and would change her verdict.  They also heard from a witness who originally testified against Davis, but has since recanted her testimony, and from Davis's family.  The Board had held two previous clemency hearings for Davis, but the makeup of the Board had changed since he was denied clemency in 2008, and new testimony had been given at a federal court hearing in 2010.  UPDATE: Davis was executed late on the night of Sept. 21.  The U.S. Supreme Court delayed the execution to consider final appeals, but then denied as stay.

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NEW VOICES: Former FBI Chief Urges Georgia to Commute Troy Davis's Death Sentence

William S. Sessions, the former director of the FBI and a former federal judge and prosecutor, recently wrote an op-ed calling for the commutation of Troy Davis's death sentence to life in prison without parole.  Writing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sessions said that "serious questions about Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction."  He called upong the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to exercise "a measure of compassion and humanity."  He concluded that there is too much doubt to allow an execution: "Without DNA or other forms of physical or scientific evidence that can be objectively measured and tested, it is possible that doubts about guilt in this case will never be resolved. However, when it comes to the sentence of death, there should be no room for doubt."  Davis's execution is scheduled for September 21, and his clemency hearing will be on September 19.  Read full op-ed below.

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Troy Davis To Have Additional Clemency Hearing

Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis will have a third clemency hearing before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles on September 19, two days before his scheduled execution.  The hearing will allow Davis to present witnesses the Board did not hear from in prior hearings as well as "renewed claims of innocence" regarding his conviction for killing Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989.  Doubts about Davis' guilt were raised when some prosecution witnesses changed their stories after giving testimony against Davis, including accusations pointing to another suspect as the triggerman.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted Davis an evidentiary hearing on his new evidence before a federal court judge. After the hearing, District Court Judge William Moore said "the State's case may not be ironclad," but nevertheless concluded that Davis had not convincingly proved his innocence.  In 2007, the Pardons Board halted Davis's execution because of unresolved doubts about his guilt.  Ultimately, they denied clemency.  There are now 3 new members on the Pardons Board.

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UPCOMING EXECUTION: Florida Case Raises Numerous Legal Concerns

Florida has set an execution date of Septmeber 6 for Manuel Valle (pictured), a foreign national from Cuba who was deprived of his rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.  The European Union's ambassador to the U.S. has asked Florida to halt the execution, and Florida's Catholic Bishops have also requested clemency for Valle, saying, "Killing someone because they killed diminishes respect for life and promotes a culture of violence and vengeance."  The state plans to introduce the anesthetic pentobarbital for this execution, despite the fact that the manufacturer of the drug, Lundbeck, Inc., has asked Florida to refrain from such use, saying it "contradicts everything we are in business to do." Valle has been on death row for about 33 years, raising other questions about cruel and unusual punishment in his case.  In another case, a federal judge has found Florida's statute to be unconstitutional.  If that ruling is upheld on appeal, it could affect Valle's case as well, but only if he is still alive. UPDATE: Valle's execution has been stayed at least until Sept. 8 by a federal court to consider whether he was denied a clemency hearing. UPDATE: Stay of execution lifted; may proceed on Sept. 8.

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Execution May Go Forward Despite Childhood Abuse Described as 'Sadistic Terror'

On August 12, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said he would not commute the death sentence of Jerry Terrell Jackson, despite the emergence of evidence that Jackson was subjected to extreme physical and psychological abuse, evidence not heard by his trial jury. Jackson is scheduled to be executed on August 18 for the murder of 88-year-old Ruth Phillips. Federal District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema held a two-day hearing in 2008 where Jackson's siblings first testified about the level of childhood abuse inflicted on Jackson and other family members.  She concluded that his sentencing hearing was a travesty of justice: "The picture painted of Jackson by his own counsel all but invited a death verdict," and that his trial counsel was "constitutionally ineffective." She described the abuse as a "continuous, sadistic course of conduct that terrorized and dehumanized Jackson throughout his childhood."  However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the decision last April, deferring to the Virginia Supreme Court, which upheld Jackson's sentence.  A petition asserting ineffectiveness of counsel is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.  If the petition is denied, Jackson will be the first person executed in Virginia since Teresa Lewis in September 2010.

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UPCOMING EXECUTION: Virginia Jurors Never Heard Critical Evidence of Childhood Abuse

va_clipLawyers for Jerry Terrell Jackson, who is currently facing execution in Virginia on August 18, recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to spare Jackson's life, arguing that the jury in his 2003 trial did not receive sufficient evidence of the abuse he suffered as a child because his trial lawyers were inadequate. Jackson's current lawyers told the Court that this evidence could have convinced some jurors not to impose a death sentence: "This Court has repeatedly held that, before a defendant is sentenced to death, a jury must be given the opportunity to consider and confront available mitigation evidence, including evidence of serious childhood abuse, relevant to assessing a defendant’s moral culpability."  Clinical Psychologist Dr. Matthew Mendel, who appears in a clemency video prepared by Jackson's lawyers (left), said of Jackson's trauma, "People abused by parents or parental figures are those with the poorest prognosis.  Jerry Terrell Jackson was not someone who was engaged in extreme misbehaviors to which the family responded.  Child protective services referred to what the parents did to him as 'planned, calculated beatings.'"  A federal District Court judge previously ruled that Jackson was entitled to a new sentencing hearing, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently reversed the ruling, holding that federal review was restricted to what had been presented in Virginia courts. Jackson also has a clemency petition pending with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who could commute Jackson's sentence based on the evidence of family abuse that the jury never heard.  (Click image on the left to view video.  Caution: portions of the video discuss particularly disturbing examples of abuse.)

("Appeal for Va. inmate facing execution," Associated Press, August 6, 2011).  See Clemency, Representation, and Arbitrariness.  For more information on Jackson's case, see Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

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2011 Death Penalty Update

Between January and the end of June 2011, there were 25 executions in 9 states.  During the same time period last year, there were 29 executions.  Of the executions this year, 8 were carried out using the drug sodium thiopental, while 17 involved a new drug, pentobarbital. Earlier in 2011, Hospira Inc., the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, announced that it would no longer manufacture the drug, forcing states to search for foreign sources or alternative drugs for their lethal injections.  Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina have used pentobarbital instead of sodium thiopental in their executions in 2011. Ohio is the only one of those 7 states to use pentobarbital as the sole drug in its lethal-injection process.  In the first half of 2011, 18 clemencies have been granted, commuting the defendant's death sentence to life without parole. Fifteen of the commutations were in Illinois, where Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill repealing the state's death penalty. The repeal goes into effect today, Juy 1.  Seventy-six percent (76%) of the cases resulting in executions so far this year involved the murder of at least 1 white victim, even though generally whites are victims of murder less than 50% of the time.

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