EDITORIALS: Death Penalty Moratorium Needed in Texas

The Dallas Morning News renewed its call for a moratorium on executions in Texas because of the numerous errors in the state's death penalty system.  The paper highlighted the cases of Michael Blair and Charles Hood as examples of how the system has broken down.  Blair was exonerated in 2008 after 14 years on death row.  DNA evidence revealed that he had not been the murderer of 7-year-old Ashley Estel in 1993, despite the fact that the jury had taken only 27 minutes to convict him, and that he may have been guilty of other crimes.  Charles Hood remains on Texas' death row, even though the fairness of his trial was completely compromised by the fact that the judge and the prosecutor admitted to having an illicit sexual affair.

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NEW VOICES: One Year Later, New Jersey Prosecutors Find No Problem with Abolition of Death Penalty

In December 2007, New Jersey became the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty in 40 years.  In commenting on the absence of capital punishment for one year, a number of state prosecutors found no problems with the new system.  "We have not viewed it as an impediment in the disposition of murder cases," said Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio, who served on a state study commission that reviewed the death penalty. "As a practical matter, we have really seen no difference in the way we conduct our business in prosecuting murder cases."


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NEW VOICES: Police Chief Says Death Penalty Hurting Public Safety

Ray Samuels, a police officer for 33 years and Chief of Police in Newark, California, for 5 years, recently expressed concern that state budget cuts will prevent important crime-fighting measures from being passed, while an expensive death penalty continues to drain the state's finances.  In an op-ed in the Contra Costa Times, Samuels wrote:

Local jurisdictions are likely to lose a significant amount of state funding this year because of the severe financial crisis. This funding helps cities and counties provide essential services in the areas of public safety, emergency services, and health and children's services. Without it, our communities will no doubt suffer dire consequences. At the same time, we continue to waste hundreds of millions on the state's dysfunctional death penalty. If we replaced the death penalty with a sentence of permanent imprisonment, the state would save more than $125 million each year. We haven't had an execution in California for three years. Are we any less safe as a result? I don't think so.

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NEW VOICES: Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Says Death Penalty Unconstitutional

The Presiding Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, Oliver Diaz, dissented in a recent capital case, Doss v. Mississippi, stating he had come to the conclusion that the death penalty is unconstitutional:

[A]ll that remains to justify our system of capital punishment is the quest for revenge, and I cannot find, as a matter of law, that the thirst for vengeance is a legitimate state interest.  Even if it is, capital punishment’s benefit over life imprisonment in society’s quest for revenge is so minimal that it cannot possibly justify the burden that it imposes in outright heinousness. The death penalty is, therefore, reduced to “the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes. A penalty with such negligible returns to the State [is] patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment.” (quoting Justice White in Furman v. Georgia).

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NEW VOICES: Law Enforcement Officer Changed Views Because of Death Penalty's Risks

Michael May served as a Baltimore City police officer and as a military police officer. He formerly supported  capital punishment, but changed his stance upon learning of innocent people who had been sentenced to death.  Mr. May testified earlier this yar before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment.  He recently published an op-ed in the Baltimore Examiner explaining how his views changed and why he supports for repeal of Maryland’s death penalty.  The full op-ed appears below:

Time to end the death penalty in Maryland
By Michael May

I spent 10 years as a law enforcement officer, including seven in the Baltimore Police Department. So I am no stranger to violence.

Indeed, my years surrounded by senseless crime filled me with outrage and the desire for revenge — including the death penalty.

But I have learned a lot since then, including the scary fact that a single mistake could be mean the execution of an innocent person.

As someone who has dedicated my life to enforcing the law, I can't live with that. I testified before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment this fall, sharing my journey from death penalty supporter to a supporter of repeal.  And last month the Commission validated my experience by voting for the same - the repeal of Maryland's death penalty. It was a smart decision and I hope the legislature will move quickly to enact it.

As I said, my opposition to the death penalty evolved.  During my years in Vietnam and later as a military policeman in Louisiana, I was exposed to violence as a matter of routine.  My anger at those who would harm innocent people boiled over. Then, working in some of the poorest and crime-ridden neighborhoods of Baltimore only strengthened my feeling that some people were simply beyond redemption.  It was a fairly simple conclusion for me to think that the most evil people in our society deserved the death penalty. In my view, those who opposed it were muddleheaded, knee-jerk liberals who were just plain wrong.

I felt that way until about ten years ago.  The last decade has seen a broad shift in public opinion on the death penalty, and I was not immune to the new information that was coming out about innocent people being sentenced to death. I was also struck by a talk on the death penalty by then Archbishop of Baltimore, William Cardinal Keeler, when he spoke at a mass at my parish in Towson. I realized then that I had to learn more.

I read about Kirk Noble Bloodsworth — a man sentenced to die in Maryland for a crime he did not commit.  I could not begin to imagine the absolute horror of languishing on death row an innocent man.  I could not imagine the anticipation of being lifted onto a gurney, strapped down and injected with a combination of lethal drugs by an incompetent nurse's aide — knowing all the time that I had done nothing wrong.

As I read about Mr. Bloodsworth and other innocent people that came close to execution, my doubts about the death penalty grew. Human beings are simply not right 100 percent of the time.  No amount of reforms, technological advances, or legal procedures can undo that fact.  If the death penalty remains, some state, perhaps even our state, will kill an innocent person.  Can we live with that?

Like many people, I have struggled to make sense of this issue. The death penalty seems like a proportionate punishment for a grievous crime.  At least it brings justice to victims in the face of evil.  But does it?  My religion teaches that the path to true peace is through forgiveness.  John Paul II traveled to an Italian prison to forgive the man who shot him. The death penalty keeps us from following that noble example.  It certainly does not bring back or even honor the dead.  It also does not ennoble the living. It does nothing to assuage the sorrow of the victim's loved ones. In fact, as I sat through the commission hearings waiting to testify, I heard from victims' families who said the opposite — that the death penalty's uncertainty only brought them more grief.

The closer you look at it, the less the death penalty makes any sense.  As the Maryland commission found, the risk of executing an innocent person is just too high to justify maintaining a punishment that does not deter, costs too much, and harms victims' families.

And as a former police officer, I would add that the death penalty is not needed to protect the public. It is time for Maryland to make the common-sense choice and replace the death penalty with life without parole.

Michael May, of Rodgers Forge, is an attorney and formerly served as a Baltimore City police officer and a military police officer.

(M. May, “Time to end the death penalty in Maryland,” The Baltimore Examiner, December 1, 2008).  See New Voices and Recent Legislative Activity.

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Washington State's Death Penalty Part of a Broken System

The state of Washington has carried out 4 executions in 45 years, the last one being in 2001 when James Elledge waived his appeals and was executed. Some prosecutors, legislators, and defense attorneys are questioning the value of keeping the system. Kitsap County Prosecutor Russell Hauge (pictured) supports the death penalty but has decided against seeking it in a recent case because he felt the appeals process would simply never end. “In terms of justice, the worst thing that could have happened in that case is the death penalty,” explained Hauge. “It would’ve started another cycle and perhaps 20 more years of appeals, forcing the victim’s family to keep revisiting this tragedy.”

Hauge pursued the death penalty only once and the jury returned a split verdict resulting in a sentence of life in prison. Because Washington death penalty cases take so long, Hauge said, “You’re not going to see any expansion of [the death penalty].” In regard to the appeals process, he said, “I think we’re going to continue to live like this,” as the courts try to ensure they do not make a deadly mistake.

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NEW VOICES: 30 FBI Agents Call for Pardon in VA Case with Death Penalty Implications

On November 10 in Richmond, Virginia, thirty former FBI agents held a press conference calling for the pardon of four sailors, known as the Norfolk Four, who were convicted of rape and murder. Their convictions were based mainly on their own confessions, which were apparently made out of fear that they might otherwise receive the death penalty. The FBI agents pointed out that DNA and forensic evidence now points to a prison inmate who has confessed as the sole perpetrator of the crimes. They asked Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to pardon the men. “After careful review of the evidence we have arrived at one unequivocal conclusion: The Norfolk Four are innocent,” said Jay Cochran, a former assistant director of the F.B.I. and former special agent who served at the bureau for 27 years. “We believe a tragic mistake has occurred in the case of these four Navy men, and we are calling on Governor Kaine to grant them immediate pardons.”

“We are not bleeding hearts, and we don’t take this type of public action lightly,” said Cochran. “However, we also believe that law enforcement has an obligation to protect the most innocent from wrongful conviction.” The agents joined a long list of notable people calling for a pardon, including 4 former Virginia attorneys general, 12 former state and federal judges and prosecutors, and a past president of the Virginia Bar Association.

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COSTS: Utah Supreme Court Says Death Sentences Will Be Reversed Unless Legislature Provides for Adequate Counsel

Utah’s Supreme Court recently expressed concern that the lack of qualified defense attorneys for indigent death row inmates could unravel capital sentences. In a unanimous decision in the case of death row inmate Michael Archuleta, Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins (pictured) said the court might be forced to reverse capital sentences because the low pay and the complexity of such cases have shrunk the pool of Utah attorneys who will accept them. "It falls to us, as the court of last resort in this state, to assure that no person is deprived of life, liberty, or property, without the due - and competent - process of law," Wilkins wrote. "Without a sufficient defense, a sentence of death cannot be constitutionally imposed." He wrote that the justices may soon be forced to reverse a death sentence and impose life without parole on such grounds if the legislature fails to provide adequate resources.

An excerpt from the opinion follows:

In recent years we have become especially concerned with the diminishing pool of competent counsel in capital cases. There is no acceptable justification for this trend. Competent defense and appellate counsel are guaranteed by our constitution. We cannot allow a defendant’s life to be taken by the government without an adequate review of the conviction. Our judicial oath to support, protect, and defend the Constitution must, of necessity, include the requirement that we take measures within our authority and responsibility to see that the mandates of the Constitution are observed.

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NEW VOICES: Veteran Detective Points to the Possibility of Wrongful Convictions

Jim Trainum, a police officer of over 25 years, recently discussed how shocked he was to discover how he and other officers were able to obtain a confession to murder from an innocent woman. Trainum explained, “Reviewing the tapes years later, I saw that we had fallen into a classic trap. We ignored evidence that our suspect might not have been guilty, and during the interrogation we inadvertently fed her details of the crime that she repeated back to us in her confession.”

Detective Trainum recently wrote about this danger and adocated a possible reform in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, arguing for the videotaping of police interrogations. Trainum said he never understood why someone would admit to a crime he or she didn’t commit until he secured such a false confession in the murder case.

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SUPREME COURT: Justice Stevens Questions Thoroughness of Review by Georgia Supreme Court

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens took the occasion of the Court's denial of review to a death row defendant in Georgia to question the adequacy of the appeals process in that state. On October 20, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in Walker v. Georgia, an appeal from the Georgia Supreme Court, and Justice Stevens concurred in that denial. However, Justice Stevens said he found the lack of careful scrutiny by the lower court to be "particularly troubling," especially since the case involved a black defendant and a white victim. Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote separately in the case, sharply disagreeing with Justice Stevens, and maintaining that no proportionality review by the Georgia Supreme Court was constitutionally required.

Justice Stevens wrote:

I find this case, which involves a black defendant and a white victim, particularly troubling. . . Rather than perform a thorough proportionality review to mitigate the heightened risks of arbitrariness and discrimination in this case, the Georgia Supreme Court carried out an utterly perfunctory review. Its undertaking consisted of a single paragraph, only the final sentence of which considered whether imposition of the death penalty in this case was proportionate as compared to the sentences imposed for similar offenses.

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