BOOKS: Gil Wanger's Lifetime of Work Against Capital Punishment
The Michigan Committee Against Capital Punishment has published a collection of over 40 years of testimony, brochures, and other information by attorney and death-penalty expert Eugene Wanger. The collection begins with the resolution from Michigan's 1962 constitutional convention banning capital punishment in the state. It includes Wanger's testimony at numerous hearings opposing bills attempting to reinstate the death penalty, as well as brochures and short articles. The bound and boxed volume provides a comprehensive overview of the history of death-penalty legislation in Michigan. Through legislation in 1846, the state became first English-speaking government to abolish the death penalty for murder and lesser crimes.
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NEW VOICES: Retired Colorado Judge Changes Mind on Death Penalty
Leland Anderson served as a judge in Jefferson County, Colorado, sentencing one man to death while sparing another. In a recent op-ed in The Denver Post, Anderson wrote how those cases affected him: “Those cases continue to haunt me even to this day, many years after having signed off on the decisions with a trembling heart.” He said his views on the death penalty have changed since he was on the bench: “I have had much time to reflect on the experience of judging another person’s life or death. The conclusion I have reached is that I can no longer support the death penalty even though I once voted in favor of executing a man…. What I have finally come to realize is that I cannot support the death penalty because what I hold dearest in life is the promise of redemption.” Anderson concluded “that the death penalty represents an anti-life force in society,” and called for an end to capital punishment.
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RECENT LEGISLATION: Maryland Senate Votes to Repeal Death Penalty
On March 6, the Maryland Senate passed SB 276 by a vote of 27-20. The bill replaces the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole for future offenses. The bill appears likely to pass the House of Delegates, and Governor Martin O’Malley has pledged to sign it. The bill would not affect the inmates currently on death row. If passed by the House and signed into law, Maryland would become the sixth state in six years, and the 18th overall to abandon capital punishment. Maryland has five people on death row and has carried out five executions since reinstating the death penalty in 1978. There have been no executions since 2005. Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and New Jersey are the other states that have ended the imposition of death sentences since 2007.
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NEW VOICES: Missouri Senator Supports Death Penalty Repeal
Missouri State Senator Gina Walsh recently voiced her support for Senate Bill 247, a bill to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole. Sen. Walsh cited the lack of deterrence and unfairness as her primary concerns about capital punishment. "It doesn't deter crime. It discriminates against racial minorities and poor people who can't afford attorneys,” Walsh said. The bill was recently heard in the Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee of the senate. Missouri has carried out two executions since 2005, and 68 since 1976. The state ranks 5th in the country in executions. Sen. Walsh called the death penalty “as much of a pro-life issue as abortion.” Although she said she was aware many of her constituents would not agree with her, she said, "I think when people are educated, support for the death penalty diminishes substantially. I don't think I could sit, as a human being, on a jury...and put someone to death."
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NEW VOICES: Former Warden, Victim Advocate, and Governor Urge Repeal in Oregon
On February 26, the House Judiciary Committee in Oregon held a hearing on repealing the death penalty. Among those testifying was Frank Thompson, a former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, who oversaw the state’s last two executions. Thompson told the committee the death penalty does not deter crime, fails to make the public safer, and places prison workers in an untenable position: “Asking decent men and women to participate in the name of a failed public policy that takes human life is indefensible and rises to a level of immorality.” Also recommending repeal was Aba Gayle (pictured), an Oregon resident whose daughter was murdered in 1980. Gayle testified that those in her situation will never experience closure and executing the killer would not honor her daughter’s life. She said, “Do not tarnish the memory of my beautiful child with another senseless killing.” The bill under consideration was introduced after Governor John Kitzhaber announced that no executions would occur during his tenure because the death penalty was a failed system. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, Kitzhaber expressed concerns about “evidence of wrongful convictions, the unequal application of the law and the expense of the process.” He concluded, “It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach.” Read full text of the Governor's letter.
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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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The Changing Face of the Death Penalty in American Politics
A recent column in The Economist examined the growing number of governors and other political leaders in the U.S. who are challenging the death penalty. In Arkansas, Governor Mike Beebe (pictured) announced in January that he would sign a death penalty abolition bill if the legislature sent him one. In Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley has led a push to repeal the death penalty. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said he is reconsidering his support for the death penalty as that state considers its repeal. New Hampshire's new governor, Maggie Hassan, indicated she would sign a repeal bill if it reaches her, after two previous governors vetoed such actions. In Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber suspended executions for the remainder of his term and asked legislators to review the issue. The Republican governors of Ohio and Kansas also have reservations about the death penalty. Governor John Kasich of Ohio has granted four commutations in capital cases, citing the need for fair trials, and Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas said capital punishment should be reserved for figures like Osama bin Laden. The author in The Economist contrasted these developments with Arkansas' former governor, Bill Clinton, who flew home from campaigning for president in 1992 to oversee an execution. The article stated, "[T]he death-penalty debate has changed in ways that go beyond day-to-day politics. It is less loud and more sceptical, giving thoughtful governors room to question a policy that causes them anguish—because they think it arbitrary, ineffective and costly, and because they impose it."
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Federal Court Halts Louisiana Execution As State Rushes Out New Execution Process
On February 7, federal District Court Judge James Brady stayed the execution of Christopher Sepulvado in Louisiana because the state failed to provide details about its new execution protocol. "Sepulvado has been trying to determine what the protocol is for years," Judge Brady wrote, "and the State will not provide this information. The intransigence of the State Defendants in failing to produce the protocol requires the Court to issue this order." Sepulvado was scheduled to be executed on Feb. 13, the first non-consensual execution in the state in over 10 years. The judge said, “There is no way that [Sepulvado] could adequately, meaningfully bring an Eighth Amendment challenge if he does not know how the protocol operates.” Louisiana had previously used a 3-drug protocol, but just recently said it planned to use 1 drug, pentobarbital. However, it offered no details about how the drug was purchased, what training was provided to prison staff, or who would carry out the execution. The state later indicated it obtained the drug from Lundbeck, Inc.
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First Death Row Inmate Exonerated Through DNA Returns, Calling for Death Penalty Repeal
A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was the first death row inmate in the country to be exonerated by DNA testing. Bloodsworth, a former Marine, was sentenced to death in 1984 for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl outside of Baltimore, Maryland. After DNA evidence led to his exoneration and release in 1993, Bloodsworth began working against capital punishment and for justice reform. “If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody,” he told the reporter. He is now the advocacy director for Witness to Innocence, an organization of exonerated death row inmates who support each other and work to repeal capital punishment. Bloodsworth has returned to Maryland as it considers a bill to end the death penalty. Advocates for repeal cite the declining use of the death penalty as evidence that capital punishment is losing support across the country (see NYT charts using DPIC data). Death sentences have dropped to the lowest levels since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Five states since 2007 have done away with the death penalty.
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Conservatives and Republicans Support Death Penalty Repeal Bill in Montana
A bipartisan group of legislators in Montana will introduce a bill to replace the state's death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. The sponsors include two Republicans and two Democrats. A coalition of conservative lawmakers, religious groups, and human rights groups support the repeal of capital punishment. Republican Sen. Matthew Rosendale (pictured), a member of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said his stance on the death penalty did not cost him votes. “People know where I stand on the death penalty and I still got elected by a wide margin....[I]f you stand up and say, ‘I’m against the death penalty,’ you will not lose conservative votes.” He added that conservatives, many of whom are concerned about abortion, have a variety of reasons for opposing the death penalty: “Everyone has their own reasons why they support ending the death penalty. For some folks, it’s for fiscal reasons, and other folks oppose it for moral issues.”
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