Alabama Pardons Scottsboro Boys--Former Death Row Inmates
On November 21, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to posthumously pardon Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson, three of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," a group of black teenagers who were charged in 1931 of raping two white women. Eight of the nine defendants, including the three who were recently pardoned, were originally sentenced to death. The racial injustice of the case sparked protests and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one because the defendants did not receive adequate counsel and the other because no blacks were allowed to serve as jurors during the trials. The three who were recently exonerated were the last of the group who had not already been pardoned or had charges against them dropped. Legislation passed in Alabama earlier this year allowed the Board to grant posthumous pardons in cases involving racial or social injustice. The pardon and parole board's assistant executive director, Eddie Cook, said, "Today, we were able to undo a black eye that has been held over Alabama for many years." Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley said, “The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice.”
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Ohio Execution Stayed at 11th Hour to Consider Inmate Organ Donation
On November 13 Ohio Governor John Kasich stayed the execution of Ronald Phillips less than 24 hours before he was to be die by lethal injection in order to consider Phillips' request to donate a kidney to his mother. Kasich stated, “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen.” Medical experts will now have time to determine whether Phillips would be a suitable donor for his mother, who is on dialysis, and other implications of the donation can be considered. In 1995, Delaware death-row inmate Steven Shelton was allowed to donate a kidney to his mother. His death sentence was later reversed for other reasons. However, in Florida, Joseph Brown was not allowed to donate a kidney to his brother, who later died. Brown was freed from death row after being exonerated in 1987. Phillips also offered to donate his heart to his sister after he was executed, but donations of vital organs have not been allowed during U.S. executions because of ethical issues. Texas allows general prisoners to donate non-vital organs, but not those on death row.
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Florida Identifies Over 100 Inmates Nearing Execution
Following the provisions of Florida's recently passed "Timely Justice Act," the clerk of the state's Supreme Court has identified 132 inmates on death row who are "warrant ready," based on their appeals. However, fewer than 20 of those inmates have begun the executive clemency process that must be completed before an execution can take place. Once the governor signals that the clemency process is over for an inmate, a death warrant must be signed in 30 days, but there is no mandatory schedule for the initial review. Over 150 attorneys representing inmates on Florida's death row are challenging the constitutionality of the law, saying it violates the separation of powers, as well as the inmates' rights to due process and equal protection. Stephen Harper, a law professor at Florida International University, said, "This [law] could create an unnecessary constitutional mess between the governor, the Legislature and the Florida Supreme Court as it's being litigated right now." Florida has already executed 5 inmates in 2013, second only to Texas. No one on death row has been granted clemency in Florida in 30 years.
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NEW VOICES: Ohio Prosecutor Now Seeks Clemency for Death Row Inmate
Timothy McGinty, the Chief Prosecutor of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, is encouraging the Ohio Parole Board to recommend clemency for death row inmate Billy Slagle (pictured). Slagle was sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of his neighbor, Mari Ann Pope. At the time of the murder, Slagle was only 18 years old, which, along with Slagle's problems of substance abuse and his record of good behavior in prison, has now led the county prosecutor to support a commutation. In his statement to the Parole Board, McGinty said, "While in no way do these factors excuse or mitigate the crime and need for appropriate punishment in this case, they would likely have led a jury to recommend a sentence of life without the possibility of parole had that been an option." At the time of Slagle's sentencing, the maximum available sentence other than death was life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. Slagle's clemency hearing is scheduled for July 8. His execution is scheduled for August 7. Governor John Kasich has the power to grant clemency even if the Board does not recommend it.
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Oregon Supreme Court Affirms Governor's Halt to All Executions
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that Governor John Kitzhaber may delay the executions of the state's death row inmates during his term of office. In 2011, Kitzhaber instituted a moratorium on all executions in the state, saying, "I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor." That decision was challenged by death row inmate Gary Haugen, who had waived his appeals in order to speed up his execution. Haugen argued that the reprieve was invalid because he refused to accept it, but the Court rejected that argument, ruling that the governor's clemency power is not dependent on the inmate's acceptance and noting that the reprieve will come to an end when the governor leaves office. Kitzhaber has urged the state legislature to allow a statewide vote on the death penalty. Because Oregon's death penalty was instituted by popular vote, it can only be repealed by a ballot measure. Oregon has had 2 executions since the death penalty was reinstated, both involving inmates who waived their appeals.
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CLEMENCY: Oklahoma Board Recommends Mercy for Inmate Facing Execution
UPDATE: Gov. Mary Fallin refused to grant clemency to Davis. On June 6, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended clemency for Brian Darrell Davis, who is facing execution on June 25. The board voted 4-1 to recommend that Davis's death sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. The parole board recommended clemency after Davis took responsibility for the crime and apologized to the family of the victim. "A weight lifted off of all of us," said his mother, Yvonne Davis. "Brian does deserve a second chance." Davis was convicted of murdering his girlfriend's mother. The recommendation now goes to Governor Mary Fallin, who can approve or reject the vote. The governor also has the authority to grant a 30-day stay in order to consider the case further.
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EDITORIALS: Colorado Case Raises Doubts About Entire Death Penalty System
Colorado recently set an execution date in August for Nathan Dunlap, who has been convicted of multiple murders. This would be first execution in the state in 16 years. In an editorial, the Aurora Sentinel recommended that the governor spare his life, not because of doubts about his guilt, but because of doubts about other aspects of the process that led to his death sentence: "There is simply too much doubt about the effectiveness of the death penalty. There is too much doubt about whether Dunlap drew the sentence because of his race. There is too much doubt about whether Colorado residents have grown to see how barbaric and expensive it is. There is too much doubt about whether Dunlap’s circumstances, rather than his crimes, brought on a death sentence." The editors concluded an execution would be a step in the wrong direction for Colorado: "To move forward on this case with so much in doubt would only add another tragic crime to those that Dunlap has wrought upon all of us." Read the editorial below.
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NEW VOICES: Former Law Enforcement Officials, Judges, Faith Leaders Urge Commutation for Colorado Inmate
On May 6, more than 20 former judges and prosecutors, religious leaders, mental health experts, and many others called on Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (pictured) to commute Nathan Dunlap's death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The group's statement cited racial and geographic disparities in the state's application of capital punishment as reasons why Dunlap should not be executed. Among those sending letters supporting clemency were former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofsky, former Arapahoe County Deputy District Attorney Richard Bloch, Denver's Catholic Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, and Rev. Dr. Jim Ryan of the Colorado Council of Churches, which represents over 850 member congregations. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, also expressed support for clemency. A letter to the governor signed by former judges stated, “We urge you to grant clemency because the death penalty in Colorado is deeply flawed. These facts depict a system that acts in an arbitrary fashion, based on factors such as race and geography." The group noted that all three of those on Colorado's death row are African American, all from the same county, and all were under age 21 at the time of their crime.
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INNOCENCE: Alabama Lawmakers Unanimously Vote to Pardon Scottsboro Boys
On April 4, the Alabama House of Representatives voted 103-0 in favor of a bill to posthumously pardon the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of two white women in 1931. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 29-0, and Gov. Robert Bentley has indicated he will sign it. All but one of the group were sentenced to death by all-white juries with virtually no legal representation. The military had to protect them from angry mobs. They lingered on death row for years. Eventually, after several arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court on the right to counsel and proper selection of juries, all of them were freed without execution. Through the years of appeals, one of the women who accused the group of rape recanted and said the claim was a lie. Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said, "Their lives were ruined by the convictions. By doing this, it sends a very positive message nationally and internationally that this is a different state than we were many years ago." The last of the group of defendants died in 1989. (photo: Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA).
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Maryland Takes Crucial Step Towards Death Penalty Repeal
On February 21, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee of Maryland approved (6-5) a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In prior years, the effort to end capital punishment was often blocked in this committee. Senator Robert Zerkin was one legislator who changed his mind this year, "As heinous and awful as these individuals [on death row] are, I think it's time for our state not to be involved in the apparatus of executions," he said. The bill outlaws future death sentences and recommends that current death sentences be commuted by the governor to life without parole. There appear to be sufficient votes for repeal in the Senate and the House, and Governor Martin O’Malley has pledged to sign the bill. A final vote in the Senate is expected by Feb. 26. The bill garnered support from a coalition of murder victims’ families, communities of color, law enforcement officials, faith leaders, civil rights leaders, and other prominent individuals, including Kirk Bloodsworth--who was freed from the state’s death row--Vicki Schieber--a Maryland resident whose daughter was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998--Catholic Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, and Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP. The governor has pledged to use some of the money saved from not having the death penalty to support victims' services. If Maryland repeals the death penalty, it will become the sixth state to do so in the past six years. Other states considering repeal of the death penalty, include Montana, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon, and Delaware.
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