Category Archives: Death Penalty

Open Thread: Successes and Setbacks for Liberty in 2010/Hopes for 2011

Was 2010 a good year or bad year for liberty and why? Like most of you will likely respond, 2010 was very much a mixed bag IMHO.

On the positive side, the mandate section of ObamaCare was found unconstitutional, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, Wikileaks exposed the federal government for the corrupt organization it is, the Democrats took a beating on election day, and the Bush era tax cuts were extended (though with the return of the death tax, extension of unemployment benefits, and other compromises in the bill, I’m not yet sure if this was a good or bad thing).

On the other hand, Republicans gained ground on election day (I’m not optimistic that they have changed much since the last time they ran things), the vast majority of incumbents in both parties were easily reelected, government spending is way out of control, the Fed wants to pump some $600 billion into the economy by printing more counterfeit money, unconstitutional invasive searches continue to take place at airports in the name of safety, both Democrat and Republican politicians consider Wikileaks to be a “terrorist” organization, and President Obama believes he can assassinate American citizens where they stand with no due process whatsoever.

On the criminal justice front, The Innocence Network (part of The Innocence Project) exonerated 29 individuals in 2010 for crimes they did not commit. Back in March, Hank Skinner came within an hour of being executed when SCOTUS halted the process. Skinner’s case continues to wind its way through the courts. In other death penalty news of 2010, Kevin Keith’s death sentence was commuted to life by Gov. Strickland, Anthony Graves became the 12th death row inmate to be exonerated in Texas, a key DNA sample was determined to not be a match for another Texas man, Claude Jones who was executed in 2000, and Texas continues to stonewall inquiries into the likely wrongful 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. As these questionable death penalty cases pile up, hopefully this will be the beginning of the end of the death penalty in Texas and elsewhere.

In a couple of other cases we never quite got around to at The Liberty Papers but deserve to be mentioned: Cory Maye was granted a new trial by the Mississippi Supreme Court because the trial judge failed to give jury instructions to consider a “defense of others” defense and in Arkansas, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the so-called “West Memphis 3” to consider newly discovered DNA evidence and juror misconduct from the original trial (if you are not familiar with this case, I urge you to follow this link as a starting point. The more I have looked into this case the more disturbing I find it to be…a perfect example of what is so terribly wrong with the system).

Hopes for 2011
Rather than offering predictions for 2011, here are some of my hopes:

– I hope that the justice will be served in the above cases.

-I hope I am wrong about the Tea Party Republicans and that they will actually be a force of positive change for more liberty and smaller government

-I hope that Ron Paul decides not to run for president for the 2012 campaign but instead puts his support behind former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (I’ll get into my reasoning in a future post).

-I hope by this time next year, I’ll have far more successes than setbacks for liberty to report.

Now it’s your turn. How do you feel about the state of liberty in 2010 and how do you feel about the year ahead?

Innocence Project: Key DNA Sample Not a Match to Man Executed in Texas

The Innocence Project reported just today that the hair sample used to condemn Claude Jones to death was not a match.

“(Houston – November 12, 2010) The Innocence Project today released DNA test results proving that crucial hair evidence found at the scene of a murder, the only physical evidence linking the accused Claude Jones to the crime, did not belong to Jones. Although he always maintained his innocence, Jones was executed for murdering Allen Hilzendager on December 7, 2000. George Bush, who was awaiting a decision from the Florida Supreme Court on whether the presidential election recount would continue, denied Jones’ request for a 30 day stay of execution to do DNA test on the hair sample. The memo from the General Counsel’s office that recommended against the stay did not tell Bush that Jones was seeking a DNA test of the hair. Evidence that the hair “matched” Jones was critical to the prosecution’s case at trial and proved to be the key factor in a narrow 3-2 decision by the Texas Court of Appeals finding there was sufficient corroboration of the accomplice who testified against Jones to uphold the murder conviction.

[…]

“It is unbelievable that the lawyers in the General Counsel’s office failed to inform the governor that Jones was seeking DNA testing on evidence that was so pivotal to the case,” said former Texas Governor and Attorney General Mark White. “If the state is going to continue to use the death penalty, it must figure out a way to build safeguards in the system so that lapses like this don’t happen again.”

[…]

“The DNA results released today may not prove that Jones was innocent, but they do raise serious questions about whether the prosecution’s case was strong enough to present to a jury and the decision to seek the death penalty in the first place,” said Governor White. “No matter what your opinion of the death penalty, I hope we can all agree that it should only be used when the state is absolutely sure that the right person has been convicted.”

So why are we only now learning nearly 10 years after the fact that the State of Texas executed Claude Jones who was convicted based solely on a hair sample that did not tie him to the crime scene?

After the San Jacinto County District Attorney’s office refused to give the Innocence Project permission to do testing on the evidence, the Innocence Project, the Texas Observer, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network brought a successful lawsuit to do the testing that proved the hair did not belong to Jones.

Yet another example of the State of Texas stonewalling to keep the facts from ever seeing the light of day. These are the same government officials who are actively covering up another case where the state likely executed an innocent man in 2004 by the name of Cameron Todd Willingham (See the Frontline documentary of this case here).

Just two weeks ago, another man by the name of Anthony Graves became the 12th death row inmate exonerated in Texas (and 139th in the country) since 1973 after serving 18 years. Fortunately for Graves, his exoneration came before his date with the death chamber.

In Gov. Rick Perry’s mind, the exoneration of Graves was proof positive the criminal justice system in Texas is “working.”

“I think we have a justice system that is working, and he’s a good example of — you continue to find errors that were made and clear them up,” Perry said. “That’s the good news for us, is that we are a place that continues to allow that to occur. So I think our system works well; it goes through many layers of observation and appeal, et cetera. So I think our system is working.”

Now that this new revelation that Claude Jones was executed based on faulty evidence has come to light, I wonder if Gov. Perry still thinks the system is “working”? They were so cock sure that Graves, Jones, and Willingham* were guilty of capital murder and proven wrong but continue to use the same stonewalling tactics in Hank Skinner’s and other cases. Gov. Perry et. al would rather cover these cases up because they don’t want to risk losing their license to kill.

» Read more

Correcting the so called “Corrections” system

As of today, it should be clear to everyone in this country, that our system for dealing with criminals (I won’t call it a “criminal justice” system since justice has so little to do with it), is utterly broken, beyond any conventional concept of repair.

At this point, again I say, it should be clear we can’t just “fix it”, we need to start over again, with a different concept.

I have a radical idea…. how about this time we start with an HONEST concept… because right now we are anything but honest about what the real function of the “criminal justice” system is; and that dishonesty is what has made all our efforts to date fail miserably.

Today, although we will never admit this to ourselves publicly, there are three things keeping the “Corrections” system going:

1. It’s a jobs program for law enforcement and “corrections” officers, and administrators

2. Non-offending people ARE actually safer when offenders are imprisoned (the problem is, what happens when they get out).

3. We like lots of cops (or at least the IDEA of lots of cops), we want to be “safe”, and we feel that people who do bad should be PUNISHED.

That’s really what it comes down to though, is punishment.

Punishment isn’t SUPPOSED to “help” them. Punishment isn’t supposed to “rehabilitate” them.

The very term “department of corrections” is a hypocritical misnomer.

Americans (and to a large extent most other cultures), put people in prison to punish them, not to “fix” them.

“Correctional system”, “penitentiary”… All high minded hypocritical myths.

The reason “Sheriff Joe” “Americas Toughest Sherrif” is so popular (despite being the worst sort of self aggrandizing, corrupt, civil rights abusing scum) is because he reassures people that he is “punishing the bad guys”; and THAT is honestly what people want.

Eastern State Penitentiary, the first “modern” penitentiary style prison, was deliberately fashioned to resemble monks cells (which is where we got the name for inmate housing units), in the belief that isolation, contemplation, prayer, and penitence (thus the name), would reform criminals into decent men. It was held up as the new “humane” model. In reality it drove prisoners mad and they killed themselves, and each other, in droves.

So long as we refuse to acknowledge the true purpose behind “custodial sentencing” and pretend it has anything to do with the offender coming out better on the other side, we are stuck with what we’ve got (And rapidly getting worse).

We have to stop pretending that punishment does anything but feed our base emotions.

We have to stop pretending that the negative prospect of prison is sufficient to deter criminals from committing crimes. Most criminals by nature have a poor appreciation for consequences, poor impulse control, and an inability to make valid risk/reward calculations.

When you put a criminal away, all you are doing is warehousing him where he can’t commit that crime anymore. That does serve a valid purpose, but it costs a huge amount of money, and doesn’t fix the problem.

The so called “criminal justice” system can no longer serve as a jobs program for law enforcement, lawyers, administrators, and corrections personnel; nor can it simply be warehousing of offenders until we release them to commit their next offense.

So, here it is, really simple; my pie in the sky ideal for how to deal with crime and punishment.

Step 1: drug addiction, possession, use, and sale, must be decriminalized

This has to happen for ANYTHING to have any hope of working. That would eliminate something like 80% of the offenses in higher criminal courts, and drastically reduce prison populations (at least 40%, most likely something more like 80%).

Step 2: We must not only stop, but revert the proliferation of felonies

Right now, you can be convicted of a felony in some states, for as little as selling the wrong kind of fish at the wrong time. We have established a ridiculous number of offenses as “high crimes” (what felonies are intended to be); without any real justification or social purpose, except to inflate those whom the state can claim as convictions, claim higher punitive penalties from, or incarcerate for longer periods of time.

Accordingly, all crimes currently classified as felonies must be reclassified as misdemeanors unless they meet one or more of the following conditions:

1. Physical violence sufficient to cause grievous bodily harm, grievous trauma (such as rape and molestation), or substantial risk of loss of life (or more).

2. Physical or monetary damages equal to or greater than two years income at minimum wage, presuming a 1940 hour work year.

3. Crimes against basic human rights, including terrorism, tampering with courts, deprivation of rights etc…

4. Grave harm to the national security of the united states, including espionage and treason.

5. Criminal negligence, gross indifference, coercion, conspiracy, or fraud sufficient to cause the above.

Step 3: We must completely overhaul our punishment and societal protection model

We must eliminate custodial sentences for non-violent crimes, including felonies, unless those crimes involve:

1. Gross negligence or indifference leading to violent consequences or the loss of life (anything from drunk driving to greater liability issues)

2. Coercion, force or fraud causing damages in excess of five years of minimum wage (because this is effectively slavery for the victim)

3. Special circumstances which are considered “heinous” (more on that later).

We must restore the element of criminal intent into how crimes are charged and sentenced. If there is no intent, then there can be no intentional crime; only crimes of negligence or indifference, which are generally considered far less severe.

In this regard, any action taken while intoxicated or impaired should be considered qualifying, HOWEVER only if criminal damage or injury to others results.

I believe that people should be allowed to drink, swallow or smoke whatever they want, but if their choices cause impairment which then causes damage or injury to others, they should be punished SEVERELY; and crimes involving impairment should be considered intentional for purposes of determining severity.

Also for purposes of determining the severity of an offense, coercion or fraud shall be considered equivalent to force (force being defined as violence, or the threat of violence).

All other criminal offenses should be punished by restitution and compensatory and punitive damages to the victim, compensatory and punitive fines to the state, labor for public benefit, public humiliation, and two years of convict status (which can be reduced by order of a judge only after discharge of all obligations).

Further, on discharge of all other obligations, convicts shall be given a term, of “probation” equal to the length of their existing sentence.

The crimes, sentences, and photographs of all those convicted of criminal offenses should be published in all local newspapers, as well as on local and national web sites; and announced on local television.

All convicts should be required to wear a distinctive article (bracelet, necklace, ankle bracelet etc…) which lists their crime and sentence, and which cannot be covered up while in public.

Convicts must wear this article, until such time as their sentence and obligations have been discharged. At any time, the convict should be legally required to disclose their crime and sentence to anyone who asks; unless doing so would cause danger or disruption.

If a convict is able to earn more than a state mandated minimum wage in their private pursuits, they may continue performing them, and pay restitution and fines directly. If not, then they are directed to work for the state, at a competitive wage for such jobs as they perform, while meeting prevailing employment standards for such a position (i.e. if the only job they qualify for is ditch digger, it’s the only job they can get; and they still have to compete for it with non-convicts).

If the convict is unable to meet basic standards of work, or is unwilling to work, then they will be reduced to menial forced labor at minimum wage. If they refuse this, they will be incarcerated, as a regular inmate, for the term of their sentence.

Restitution, damages, and fines should of course be directly garnished from the convicts wages; but should be considered pre-tax income deductions for tax purposes.

All custodial sentences shall have terms of two, five, ten, twenty five years, or life (or death in states that allow it).

Different charged offenses can be combined consecutively to “stack” sentences; but only if those offenses make up separate criminal acts (if one crime involved 8 different chargeable elements with a 2 year sentence for each, then the convict would receive 8 two year sentences to run concurrently. If he committed the same crime on 8 different occasions, he could receive consecutive sentences, for a total of 16 years incarceration)

There is no parole, however sentences can be reduced (more on that later).

Forcible rape, aggravated sexual assault, sexual molestation, aggravated kidnapping, intentional premeditated or depraved homicide (what would be first degree murder in most jurisdictions), felony murder if the homicide is heinous by itself, any intentional negligent or depraved indifference crime resulting in mass death or mass grievous injury (mass being defined as multiple victims who were not individually targeted, or multiple victims who were unknown to the criminal and whom they had no individual an personal motive to harm), any crime involving tampering with a court or an election, any crime involving the intentional deprivation of an individuals basic human and civil rights (as enumerated in the declaration of independence, and the constitution), torture, espionage, treason; or any attempt to commit those crimes, or conspiracy to commit those crimes; shall all be considered “heinous crimes”.

Heinous crimes should all carry the maximum length of incarceration, and should be eligible for the death penalty in jurisdictions that allow it.

It is important however, that all state and federal laws about the definitions of these crimes must be clarified and harmonized to meet the highest standard of criminal act, and criminal intent (for example, a potentially but not explicitly sexual element to a simple assault – such as public nudity or forced nudity -, would not make it sexual assault. The intent and act must be sexual in nature, and involve sexual contact or acts, or attempted sexual contact or acts. Forcible rape must be limited to actual acts of physical violence, or coercion by threat of violence, resulting in a sexual act).

Oh and yes, I really do believe that voter fraud and election fraud should be punishable by life in prison. So should criminally preventing someone from voting who has the lawful franchise. Any criminal deprivation of rights should be considered as serious as rape or murder.

In addition to their custodial sentence, of course, all penalties that apply to non-custodial sentences would also apply. Restitution, damages, fines and fees, as well as all other conditions of convicts.

Sentences can be reduced, by a judge, on review of the case, and circumstances. A review will be automatically initiated at the time the convict discharges their restitution, damages, and fines, should they do so before the term of their incarceration is completed. Criminals convicted of heinous crimes however, would not be eligible for early release except for humanitarian reasons.

While serving a custodial sentence and incarcerated, unless disabled and unable to do so, the convict will be required to perform productive labor for at least 8 hours a day, five days a week; for which they will be paid at minimum, a base sum equal to the cost of their incarceration (for which they will be charged). They will also accumulate sick leave benefit, and paid vacation days, equivalent to a government employee of the same grade as whatever productive labor they perform.

If the convict is disabled and unable to perform any work, they will be given the same disability status as any disabled individual; and will receive the equivalent of all federal and state disability payments and benefits, to offset the cost of their incarceration.

The convict is to be given the opportunity to voluntarily learn useful job skills, and perform at a useful job at market rates, which can earn them money to pay their fines and restitution.

If the convict has useful skills which can be applied to work that can be performed within the terms of their incarceration without undue risk, this is to be allowed.

The convict is also to be offered the opportunity to work overtime, and earn more money; to be used to pay the cost of their incarceration, their fines and restitution; the balance of which should be the inmates to control as they see fit.

This should not imply the inmate has a right to any job other than basic labor paid at a rate sufficient to cover the cost of their incarceration. Only that the opportunity to seek and perform other employment must be allowed.

If a convict refuses to work, or does not meet minimum standards of work, they are to be restricted to solitary confinement without public exercise, visitation, or communication privileges (excepting legal and spiritual council), and reduced to subsistence ration. Additionally, any work day the convict refuses to work, the cost of their incarceration for that day will be added to their obligations.

Some of this may seem ridiculous (vacation days for convicts?) but it serves an important purpose. The convict should understand, they are performing a job, for pay. They benefit from their own labor, and they have to pay for their own upkeep. If they work harder or more or at a better job, they get ahead; just like everyone else.

This kind of normalization is really the only way to produce people who won’t reoffend when they get out. Get them useful job and life skills they can transfer to the outside world; and get them in the habit of meeting standards of behavior; you’ll see a huge difference.

Any convict caught committing any felony while incarcerated will be subject to immediate extension of their sentence to life in the case of non-violent felonies, or death in the case of violent felonies. Self defense (against ANY crime or attempted crime against them, not just murder) is considered a valid defense against such charges however.

On their release from custody, convicts will be liable to the same penalties and strictures as those who have received non-custodial sentences.

Any further felony committed by any felony convict, whether incarcerated or not, prior to the discharge of any and all obligations (fines, restitution, service or labor), or in the convicts “probation” period will result in an automatic custodial sentence of at least five years; even for offenses that would not normally carry a custodial penalty.

Any violent felony committed prior to the discharge of any and all obligations shall result in an automatic custodial sentence of life in prison, or death.

On the discharge of their fines and restitution, and completion of any service or labor requirements, and any probation period; all convicts shall have all their civil rights restored, including the right to vote, and the right to keep and bear arms.

Private employers may discriminate against convicts, even after their obligations have been discharged, should they choose to do so. The federal, state, and local governments however may NOT discriminate against convicts whose sentences have been discharged however, except for those convicted of Heinous crimes (who should, in general, not be released anyway) or in the case of employment in law enforcement, criminal justice, corrections, national security, or the military.

Any repeat offense of the same felony, or any violent felony by a convicted felon who has discharged their sentence, shall cause a convict to be considered an incorrigible offender, and subject to an automatic sentence of 25 years, life, or death at a judges discretion (25 years for any crime that would normally rate a sentence less than 25 years. Life for any crime that would normally rate 25 years. Death for any heinous crime, or crime that would normally rate life). As always, this is subject to review and reduction by a judge after the convict has discharged their obligations (excepting heinous crimes).

I call this the “one chance, don’t blow it” rule. I believe it is fully justified, because the nature and scope of felonies is being dramatically reduced; the standards for offense are much higher, and the ability of someone to reintegrate into society without re-offending should be much better under this regime.

That’s it. Not exactly simple, but a lot less complicated than our current system… and if anything can work, it ought to be this.

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

Aren’t You Glad To Be A Gamma?

I had a really interesting philosophical discussion with Brad Warbiany, our curator at The Liberty Papers, over a Facebook status I wrote. I had just re-listened to the CBS Radio Workshop rendition of Brave New World and had commented that it seemed like a far more livable situation than 1984.

Warbiany added that California, if Prop. 19 passes and allows the modern equivalent of soma to be freely ingested, the state really will look like Brave New World. With the state already self-organized into a caste system (Listen to someone from Northern California talk about Southern California or someone from Berkeley talk about Sacramento some time), abortion and every sort of contraceptive widely available and the domination of a vapid mass culture (seen at San Diego Comic Con or Wonder Con in San Francisco) taking precedence over civic involvement for Californians, the Golden State really resembles Huxley’s “negative utopia.”

Warbiany also handed me this great cartoon:
Orwell v. Huxley

On Twitter, alot of progressive and libertarian leaning activists tend to advocate alot for issues of freedom and emancipation in countries like Iran or China. In a way, situations in so obviously repressive countries like those are much easier for the activist. They fit into the Orwell dynamic and the villains and heroes are very clear. In his opposition to the death penalty, our own Stephen Littau does take on the American equivalent to state repression. Along with questionable foreign policy and drug policy, however, those are really the only avenues for passionate American political activism.

Beyond such clear issues of state force, however, one runs into a brick wall when faced with the mass culture, dullness and vapidity of consumer society. It seems that in this society, the majority of more normal people (myself and most people reading this strongly excepted) do not become Jeffersonians but instead “turn on, tune in and cop out,” as Gil Scott Heron once said. How does one become an activist in a society in which people freely subjugate, segregate and limit themselves?

I have a funny story that relates to this, that I didn’t even remember until I read what Brad said. While living in Alameda, California, I lost my phone. A teenage girl, around college age most likely, found it and called my mom, who e-mailed me about it. When I got the phone back, I was really grateful but had no money on hand. The only possession I had literally was a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I offered it to her.

She literally responded, “No thanks. I don’t read.”

I know. Alameda is not a low income area where reading should be rare, either. There are several bookstores in the area, along with hip restaurants, record stores and everything else you expect in cosmopolitan society. It even has an incredible vintage movie theatre that I rank as the best in Northern California, next to Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre. This girl was obviously more involved in other factors of modern life, all of which I can safely assume are of less consequence intellectually than the work of Huxley.

It’s especially ironic given that there is a passage in Brave New World in which infants are given books while bombarded with screeching, loud noises, in order to dissuade them from being too intellectual when they reach adulthood. With video games, television, the internet and iPhones, that seems unnecessary as modern people have been incentivized out of intellectualism.

That girl did go to extra trouble to give me my phone back, with no advantage to her, however. That means she had a decency and sense of altruism that her lack of reading hadn’t impeded. Having grown up around the hyper-educated and being on that road myself, I can also attest that we’re not the nicest group of people. Perhaps then we really are on the road to progress.

Nolan Exposes McCain’s Antipathy for Civil Liberties in Arizona Senate Debate

David Nolan, co-founder of the Libertarian Party and author of “The World’s Smallest Political Quiz” (to which the result is plotted on the “Nolan Chart”) is running against none other than the most recent Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain for his senate seat. KTVK-3TV hosted a debate last Sunday which included Sen. McCain along with challengers Rodney Glassman (D), Jerry Joslyn (G), and David Nolan (L). Believe it or not, all candidates were given equal time to debate the issues; something that is usually missing from the debates I’m accustomed to watching.

Despite the skills of those challenging Sen. McCain – particularly the two 3rd party candidates, the latest Real Clear Politics Average Poll shows McCain with a comfortable 17.4 point lead over his closest challenger, Rodney Glassman. Critics of 3rd parties look at poll results like this and wonder “what’s the point” of allowing 3rd party candidates to participate when their chances of winning are so miniscule.

IMHO, I believe that both Nolan and Joslyn did a fine job demonstrating why 3rd party candidates should be included by raising issues, proposing solutions, and exposing the shortcomings of the two party system and the candidates themselves to voters and concerned citizens.

In the 3rd part of this debate (below), Nolan brought up a McCain sponsored bill that is most likely not on the radar of very many people: S. 3081, the “Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010.”

(Beginning at -6:14 in part 3 of the debate)

Nolan: “One of the reasons I got into this race is that right now, at this very moment Sen. McCain is a sponsor – I think the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 3081 […] a bill which would authorize the arrest and indefinite detention of American citizens without trial and without recourse. This is one of the most dangerous, evil, un-American bills that’s ever been proposed in congress and nobody who would sponsor such a bill should be sitting in a seat in the United States Senate.”

And what was Sen. McCain’s response to the charge by Nolan of sponsoring such a “dangerous, evil, un-American” bill?

McCain: “Well again, I hope that our viewers won’t judge me by the remarks just made [by Nolan], they may be a little bit biased.”

Nolan raised the issue again in his closing remarks. Sen. McCain did not respond.

Okay, fair enough. Perhaps Mr. Nolan is biased. He is trying to take his job after all. Fortunately for now at least, the average person with an internet connection can freely search and find the bill and learn of its contents. Let’s take a look and see how “biased” Mr. Nolan was and determine whether or not Arizona’s senior senator should be “judged” by the bill he is currently sponsoring.

SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.

This Act may be cited as the ‘Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010’.

SEC. 2. PLACEMENT OF SUSPECTED UNPRIVILEGED ENEMY BELLIGERENTS IN MILITARY CUSTODY.

(a) Military Custody Requirement- Whenever within the United States, its territories, and possessions, or outside the territorial limits of the United States, an individual is captured or otherwise comes into the custody or under the effective control of the United States who is suspected of engaging in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners through an act of terrorism, or by other means in violation of the laws of war, or of purposely and materially supporting such hostilities, and who may be an unprivileged enemy belligerent, the individual shall be placed in military custody for purposes of initial interrogation and determination of status in accordance with the provisions of this Act.

(b) Reasonable Delay for Intelligence Activities- An individual who may be an unprivileged enemy belligerent and who is initially captured or otherwise comes into the custody or under the effective control of the United States by an intelligence agency of the United States may be held, interrogated, or transported by the intelligence agency and placed into military custody for purposes of this Act if retained by the United States within a reasonable time after the capture or coming into the custody or effective control by the intelligence agency, giving due consideration to operational needs and requirements to avoid compromise or disclosure of an intelligence mission or intelligence sources or methods.

“Suspected unprivileged enemy belligerent” ? No, that doesn’t sound Orwellian at all. Now let me highlight Sec. 3b3 and let you, the reader decide if any of this strikes you as “dangerous,” “evil,” or even “un-American.”

(3) INAPPLICABILITY OF CERTAIN STATEMENT AND RIGHTS- A individual who is suspected of being an unprivileged enemy belligerent shall not, during interrogation under this subsection, be provided the statement required by Miranda v. Arizona (384 U.S. 436 (1966)) or otherwise be informed of any rights that the individual may or may not have to counsel or to remain silent consistent with Miranda v. Arizona.

Talk about double speak! Such individuals are not “criminal suspects” who in our criminal justice system normally considers “innocent until proven guilty” who have Constitutionally protected rights but “suspected enemy belligerents” who are apparently assumed guilty until a high ranking official in the executive branch, or the president himself determines otherwise.

Sorry, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I haven’t even got to the most disturbing part of the bill yet – Section 5:

SEC. 5. DETENTION WITHOUT TRIAL OF UNPRIVILEGED ENEMY BELLIGERENTS.

An individual, including a citizen of the United States, determined to be an unprivileged enemy belligerent under section 3(c)(2) in a manner which satisfies Article 5 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War may be detained without criminal charges and without trial for the duration of hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners in which the individual has engaged, or which the individual has purposely and materially supported, consistent with the law of war and any authorization for the use of military force provided by Congress pertaining to such hostilities.

So here we are in 2010, Sen. McCain et al advocating giving American citizens POW status under Article 5 of the Geneva Convention as they may be “enemy belligerents” in an ill-defined and open-ended “war on terror.” The provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act which were originally supposed to be temporary but now as a practical matter, a permanent fixture of federal law, apparently don’t go far enough to dismantle what is left of the Bill of Rights.

One thing I found interesting in this debate was not only Sen. McCain’s response (or lack thereof) but also the deafening silence of his Democrat challenger who could have easily picked this issue up and ran with it if he shares Nolan’s civil liberties concerns. Could it be that Mr. Glassman would also support this bill if he were elected to replace Sen. McCain? If so, I wouldn’t be at all surprised considering that President Obama who is a member of the same political party as Glassman actually believes he can assassinate Americans without due process of any kind. Both the Obama and Bush administrations have even gone as far to say that if or when the president makes a “state’s secrets” claim, no court can even consider the legality of such cases. There’s little doubt in my mind that President Obama would sign S. 3081 into law as this would only enhance his power.

Maybe for now on we should stop referring to the first ten amendments as “The Bill of Rights” and call them “The Bill of Privileges.” This would at least be honest because rights cannot be taken away and therefore can never be “inapplicable.”

UPDATE: Despite Possible Political Implications, Gov. Strickland Stops Kevin Keith’s Execution; Commutes Sentence to Life

Bob Driehaus writing for The New York Times reports:

CINCINNATI — A death row inmate convicted of murdering a child and two adults was spared the death penalty Thursday by Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, who said there were possible problems with the evidence.

A diverse group of Republicans and Democrats, attorneys general and federal and state judges and prosecutors had rallied around the case of the inmate, Kevin Keith, 46, after his lawyers uncovered evidence they say casts doubt on his guilt.

In commuting the death sentence, Mr. Strickland, a Democrat, said that he believed it was still likely that Mr. Keith committed the murders, but that he was troubled by the likelihood that evidence uncovered since his conviction would not be presented to a court before the scheduled Sept. 15 execution.

“That would be unfortunate,” Mr. Strickland said in a statement. “This case is clearly one in which a full, fair analysis of all of the unanswered questions should be considered by a court. Under these circumstances, I cannot allow Mr. Keith to be executed.”

Gov. Ted Strickland should be applauded for doing the right thing and preventing Kevin Keith’s execution. Strickland, who is as of this posting trailing in his race for re-election against his Republican challenger John Kasich by roughly 10 points, had to know that stopping an execution of someone convicted of a particularly heinous act is a very risky proposition politically. George W. Bush is the only governor in history to commute a death row sentence in an election year and go on to win re-election. Kasich, on the other hand, has the luxury of not having to comment one way or the other (and so far his campaign hasn’t).

Neither the parole board nor SCOTUS were willing to consider the “unanswered questions” about Kevin Keith’s guilt. Keith’s life was quite literally in Gov. Strickland’s hands. And even though Gov. Strickland still believes that Keith is likely guilty of these murders, he decided to err on the side of life – life in prison but life none the less.

Keith’s legal team, though thrilled that their client’s life was spared, are not going to be completely satisfied until these questions are presented in a new trial in hopes of proving Keith’s innocence.

The article continues:

“The same compelling reasons that support Governor Strickland’s actions today,” said one of his lawyers, Rachel Troutman, “warrant a new, fair trial for Mr. Keith, including the existence of newly discovered evidence, the revelation of evidence withheld by the state, and the development of new science behind eyewitness identification, all of which point to Mr. Keith’s innocence.”

There is no excuse for the state to withhold evidence that doesn’t support the state’s case. It seems that all too often prosecutors focus too much on “winning” their cases at the expense of justice. Justice not only denied for the accused but also for the victims and their families.

There’s also no excuse for the John Kasich campaign’s silence in this case. Kasich is running to replace the sitting governor of a death penalty state. Kasich owes it to Ohio voters to explain why his opponent, the sitting governor made the right or wrong decision in this case. It’s not really enough for a candidate for governor to answer a generic question about whether s/he supports the death penalty or not when real death penalty cases with real and difficult questions exist in a state that executes the second highest number of people in the nation.

All legal issues and politics aside, the commuting of Kevin Keith’s death sentence to life is very good and welcome news.

Related Post:

Even Death Penalty Supporters Urge Ohio Gov. Strickland to Spare Kevin Keith

Even Death Penalty Supporters Urge Ohio Gov. Strickland to Spare Kevin Keith

Its one thing when anti-death penalty activists petition a governor to pardon or commute a sentence of an individual scheduled for execution but quite another when death penalty supporters agree. Kevin Keith is scheduled to be executed by the state of Ohio on September 15th for the 1994 murders of 2 adults and 1 child; a crime he has maintained he did not commit. Despite exculpatory evidence which points away from Keith and despite Gov. Ted Strickland’s (D) own public comments where he said he found “certain aspects” of the case “troubling,” the parole board voted 8-0 in favor of executing Keith.

Fortunately, the parole board’s decision is non-binding; Gov. Strickland or perhaps SCOTUS can still do the right thing and halt the execution until the more ‘troubling’ aspects of this case can be fairly reconsidered.

According to this article in The Guardian, among those who are urging Gov. Strickland to halt the execution are more than 30 former judges and prosecutors including former Ohio Attorney General and death penalty supporter Jim Petro (R) and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Herbert Brown.

Jim Petro in a letter to Gov. Strickland:

“I am gravely concerned that the state of Ohio may be on the verge of executing an innocent person”

Justice Herbert Brown in another letter:

“There is a mass of exculpatory evidence, suppressed evidence, faulty eyewitness identification and forensic reports that support legitimate claims of innocence”

Innocence Network President and Clinical Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School Keith A. Findley, while likely biased against the death penalty also wrote to persuade the governor:

Like so many of the wrongful conviction cases, tunnel vision by police, prosecutors, and even courts appears to have played a central role in Mr. Keith’s case and his ultimate conviction.

[…]

The evidence of these pernicious effects of tunnel vision, coupled with the compelling new evidence in Mr. Keith’s case, suggests that Ohio might be on the verge of executing an innocent man […]

Keith’s defense team, in a statement following the parole board’s decision points out that Gov. Strickland signed a bill into law which prohibited some of the very techniques investigators used against their client. Unfortunately for Keith, the banning of these faulty procedures came too late.

Yes, the case of Kevin Keith is indeed troubling. Maybe if a few thousand more can petition Gov. Strickland, he will be even more troubled to the point to where he will end this madness (click here to sign the petition).

In other troubling death penalty news, a federal judge has denied Troy Davis’ innocence claim despite 7 of 9 eyewitnesses recanting their testimonies against him.

Obama: Judge, Jury, and Executioner in Chief

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” – Amendment V of the U.S. Constitution

I don’t know how I missed this, but apparently the 5th Amendment was repealed a few months back with very little concern on the part of the media. Or maybe this was a big story back in February and I just wasn’t paying attention. I have been quite busy lately but I still don’t see how I missed this most disturbing power grab on the part of the Obama administration to date: the power for the president to order the assassination of American citizens without trial*.

If you missed this like I did and have read about this for the first time here, you may believe this sounds like some kooky black helicopter Soldier of Fortune conspiracy propaganda. When I heard about this the first time from Glenn Beck (of all people) on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s Freedom Watch, I thought it was probably another one of Beck’s over the top Obama boogey man theories. I thought surely if a president, even this president, were to do such a thing as order CIA snipers or perhaps Predator drones to take out an American citizen without trial, even the media on Left would be scandalized by such a policy.

As it turns out, Beck was right. When I entered the phrase “Obama can assassinate Americans” into a Google search, I did find at least one Left wing blog, Democracy Now! podcast hosted by Amy Goodman back in February explore this issue. And to Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s (D-OH) credit, he made an appearance on the podcast to explain why he isn’t giving President Obama a pass.

Kucinich:

Well, I think its incumbent upon the Attorney General to explain the basis in law for such a policy. Our Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, our Seventh Amendment, our Fourteenth Amendment all clearly provide legal protections for people who are accused or who would be sentenced after having been judged to be guilty. And what’s happened is that the Constitution is being vitiated here. The idea that people are—have—if their life is in jeopardy, legally have due process of law, is thrown out the window.

And, Amy, when you consider that there are people who are claiming there are many terrorist cells in the United States, it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to imagine that this policy could easily be transferred to citizens in this country. That doesn’t—that only compounds what I think is a slow and steady detachment from core constitutional principles. And once that happens, we have a country then that loses its memory and its soul, with respect to being disconnected from those core constitutional principles which are the basis of freedom in our society.

Not everyone on the Left is as willing to hold the Obama administration accountable though. Salon.com writer Glenn Greenwald (also a guest interviewed in the above podcast), one of the few columnists to give this policy the condemnation it deserves, wrote a very disturbing piece to remind those who were (rightly) critical of the Bush administration’s policies concerning extraordinary rendition, holding “enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial (including American citizens), warrantless wiretapping, and so on, should be at least as critical of Obama’s policy which goes even further.

Greenwald writes:

“Today, both The New York Times and The Washington Post confirm that the Obama White House has now expressly authorized the CIA to kill al-Alwaki no matter where he is found, no matter his distance from a battlefield. I wrote at length about the extreme dangers and lawlessness of allowing the Executive Branch the power to murder U.S. citizens far away from a battlefield (i.e., while they’re sleeping, at home, with their children, etc.) and with no due process of any kind.

[…]

And what about all the progressives who screamed for years about the Bush administration’s tyrannical treatment of Jose Padilla? Bush merely imprisoned Padilla for years without a trial. If that’s a vicious, tyrannical assault on the Constitution — and it was — what should they be saying about the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s assassination of American citizens without any due process?

[…]

When Obama was seeking the Democratic nomination, the Constitutional Law Scholar answered a questionnaire about executive power distributed by The Boston Globe’s Charlie Savage, and this was one of his answers:

5. Does the Constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants?

[Obama]: No. I reject the Bush Administration’s claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.

So back then, Obama said the President lacks the power merely to detain U.S. citizens without charges. Now, as President, he claims the power to assassinate them without charges. Could even his hardest-core loyalists try to reconcile that with a straight face? As Spencer Ackerman documents today, not even John Yoo claimed that the President possessed the power Obama is claiming here.

Even though I did not vote for Obama in 2008 and was very critical of his policy positions at the time, I thought he would at least be an improvement in the area of civil liberties. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It seems that rather than rolling back these Bush era unconstitutional power grabs, Obama has grown accustomed to them and decided to take these powers to the next level: killing Americans he believes to be enemies of the state.

Perhaps there is room to debate whether or not foreign suspected terrorists deserve all the legal protections of our courts but the idea of killing American citizens without trial most certainly is not debatable. If our government does anything well its identifying individuals and putting them in prison and/or sentencing said individuals to death. This is done successfully every day in our criminal justice system. We need not worry that many actual terrorists will escape going through the criminal justice system provided that the prosecutors have a minimum standard of proof and a jury of average intelligence.

Even as badly broken as our criminal justice system is, this is our system. Ordering the killing of American citizens even in an “emergency” is not among the powers provided to the president under the Constitution (I just double checked) and is not a suitable substitute.
» Read more

SCOTUS will Hear Hank Skinner’s Case but Might Not Make the Final Decision

Yesterday SCOTUS decided they will hear Hank Skinner’s case; arguments will likely be heard sometime next year. However, even if Skinner ‘wins,’ SCOTUS is unlikely to decide once and for all if convicts have a Constitutional right to challenge their convictions if exculpatory evidence becomes available post-conviction. Legal experts say that the most Skinner can hope for is a SCOTUS ruling which would allow a lower court to make the decision which would likely lead to one appeal after another and potentially find its way back to SCOTUS.

Brandi Grissom writing for The Texas Tribune explains the long road ahead if SCOTUS rules in Skinner’s favor:

Even if the court agreed that Skinner can request DNA testing under federal civil rights law, Hoffmann said, it’s unlikely the courts would rule that he has a constitutional right to prove he was actually innocent. The Supreme Court has never ruled that the Constitution spells out such a right. It’s likely that Skinner’s case or a similar one would make its way back to the Supreme Court and eventually force the court to face that question. If the court were to answer it affirmatively, Hoffmann said, it could start a flood of litigation from inmates claiming innocence. That, in turn, could raise a myriad of questions about how the justice system operates and really “gum up the works,” he said. “They really don’t want to kind of bite the bullet and recognize this as a federal constitutional right.”

Allowing DNA requests under federal civil rights law would also bring the Supreme Court closer to a larger question that Blackburn and Hoffmann said the elite jurists have carefully avoided: whether inmates have a constitutional right to prove they are actually innocent. With the rise of DNA science, the question looms large in cases such as Skinner’s, in which testable evidence exists that the jury never heard. Currently, federal innocence claims are primarily based on deprivation of an inmate’s constitutional right to due process — things like shoddy representation or biased juries. There is no legal remedy for convicted criminals who claim the jury just got it wrong, even though their rights were properly protected at trial, Hoffmann said.

“Whether they’re actually innocent or not is kind of a legal irrelevancy once the jury has spoken its version of the truth,” Hoffmann said. “Basically, our legal system is constructed in such a way that that’s the end of it.”

I’m not a lawyer and would never claim to be but a criminal justice system in which judges and lawyers can say that actual proven innocence is ‘legally irrelevant’ is surly a criminal justice system that is broken – particularly when an individual’s life is on the line.

This is why I do not trust the government to kill in my name. There is a legal definition for taking the life of an innocent* person: homicide.

» Read more

Modern Jurisprudence is PROFOUNDLY Broken

Two contrasting stories out of the Supreme Court today, that bring home the fact that jurisprudence in this country is profoundly… hopefully not irreparably… broken.

First, from the New York Times:

NO MORE LIFE SENTENCES FOR MINORS WHO HAVEN’T MURDERED…. In yet another 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said this morning that incarcerated minors can’t receive life sentences if they haven’t killed anyone.

By a 5-4 vote Monday, the court says the Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences must at least be considered for release.

The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham, now 22, is in prison in Florida, which holds more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.

“The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. “This the Eighth Amendment does not permit.”

The Eighth Amendment, of course, prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissented. Chief Justice John Roberts also sided with the minority, though he agreed with the majority on the specific case of Terrance Graham’s fate.

In Justice Kennedy’s majority ruling, he made note of the “global consensus” against life-sentences for youths who haven’t committed murder. The sentence will likely enrage the far-right, which tends to throw a fit when justices take note of international developments.

In a concurrence, Stevens, joined by Ginsburg and Sotomayor, threw an elbow at one of their colleagues: “While Justice Thomas would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old … Court wisely rejects his static approach to the law. Standards of decency have evolved since 1980. They will never stop doing so.”

and in a complete reversal of logic, this judgement:

AP: High Court: ‘Sexually Dangerous’ Can Be Kept in Prison

WASHINGTON (May 17) — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered “sexually dangerous” after their prison terms are complete.

The high court reversed a lower court decision that said Congress overstepped its authority in allowing indefinite detentions of considered “sexually dangerous.”

“The statute is a ‘necessary and proper’ means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned by who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion.

President George W. Bush in 2006 signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which authorized the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal inmates.

The act, named after the son of “America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh, was challenged by four men who served prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. Their confinement was supposed to end more than two years ago, but prison officials said there would be a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released.

A fifth man who also was part of the legal challenge was charged with child sex abuse, but declared incompetent to stand trial.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled last year that Congress overstepped its authority when it enacted a law allowing the government to hold indefinitely people who are considered “sexually dangerous.”

But “we conclude that the Constitution grants Congress legislative power sufficient to enact” this law, Breyer said.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying Congress can only pass laws that deal with the federal powers listed in the Constitution.

Nothing in the Constitution “expressly delegates to Congress the power to enact a civil commitment regime for sexually dangerous persons, nor does any other provision in the Constitution vest Congress or the other branches of the federal government with such a power,” Thomas said.

Thomas was joined in part on his dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia.

It seems clear to me, that both of these decisions are examples where justices are deciding a case based on what they want to do and finding a way to justify it, rather than a considered opinion of the law and the constitution.

In the first case, the majority came to what I believe is the right decision on constitutional ground, but for what appear to be the wrong reasons. The minority on the other hand are supporting an unconstitutional practice, based on pragmatic considerations.

In the second case, the majority supported a CLEARLY unconstitutional practice for pragmatic reasons; and the minority dissented based on the constitution.

Both cases however, highlight a major problem with our “justice system” today: We can’t deal effectively with our criminals, our prisoners, or our prisons.

There are many reasons for this of course, but what it comes down to, is that there are too many crimes, too many criminals, and too little honesty in how we deal with either.

Both of these cases are about recidivism. The plain fact is, more than 40% of people who go to prison, go back. More than 60% who go to prison for violent crimes go back. More than 80% who go to prison for sex crimes go back.

There have been a number of attempts at dealing with these difficult facts; none of them effective, and most of them unconstitutional.

In the case of the criminals under 18 being imprisoned for life because of sentence enhancements… The problem here isn’t that it’s a 17 year old in prison for life for something other than rape or murder… Its that “sentence enhancements” even exist at all.

Firstly, I think the whole “global consensus” thing is not only irrelevant, but dangerous and unconstitutional (interpretation of American law should ONLY be based on the Constitution, and the constitutions of the several states)

Yes, the law evolves, and yes it is influenced by changing moral standards, which is influenced by world culture.

When we wrote our constitution, it was in large part based on principles inherent in English common law; as was the early constitutional scholarship and interpretation until we built up our own body of case law. The goes further back to the greeks, romans, even the Assyrians. Certain basic principles of law and justice are universal; or have filtered up through from the earliest formalized conceptions of both rights, and laws.

However, it is important that case law be consistent with the written constitution; and that any case law which is not be ignored in interpretation of future cases, and hopefully be reversed.

If the American people want to change their constitutions, they can. There is a mechanism for that. Until they do, there should be no other arbiter for American law than the constitution.

One of the fundamental principles of jurisprudence is that the law should be knowable, and predictable; not arbitrary and capricious. One should not need to follow “evolving moral standards” and case law in other countries, to know whether one is violating the law.

In a system where ignorance of the law is no defense, the law must be written and knowable. The fact that in todays world it is not; is not an indication that we have evolved morally, it is an indication that modern jurisprudence is profoundly broken.

All that said however I agree that the law in question should have been struck down, just for a different reason.

I believe that “sentence enhancement” conditions are themselves a bad thing. They are invalid and unconstitutional as far as I am concerned. A crime is a crime, and one should be punished the same way for the same crime, as everyone else.

Certainly, there can be special circumstances, but they shouldn’t increase punishment; a maximum punishment should be set, and that’s it. There should be discretion for judges to reduce sentences, but not to increase them. Three strikes laws, hate crime enhancements, all of them need to go.

The problem that three strikes laws are intended to solve (high recidivism rates), is more properly addressed by longer or more harsh initial sentences, combined with better rehabilitation and reintegration efforts, and a better running of our penal system.

In the second case, we again have an issue of inappropriate sentencing.

Genuine sexual predators (rapists, molestors etc..) need to be put away for life without parole, or they need to die (though I have grave reservations about the death penalty). Either way, they need to be permanently removed from society.

For some reason, we treat sex crimes as far less serious than major property crimes, or other violent crimes; as if rape were not every bit as serious as attempted murder (believe me, it is).

Some things require ultimate sanction, and serious sex crimes are among those things.

On the other hand though, we now classify the most piddling things as sex crimes. Right now, we have hundreds of 18 and 19 year old young men in prison around this country, for having consensual sex with their 17 year old girlfriends (somehow, we almost never imprison older young women for sex with teenage boys). We make people register as sex offenders for having consensual sex in the back of their cars in a parking lot…

Which just reinforces the point: We’re broken both ways. We are far too harsh on one side, and far too lenient on the other; and just plain broken all the way around, because a sentence doesn’t mean what it says it means.

The very idea that a state official can simply decide you are too dangerous to be let out of prison, EVEN THOUGH YOUR JUDICIAL SENTENCE IS OVER… It’s disgusting. It’s abhorrent to the very nature of our country, and our constitution.

Three strikes laws, sentence enhancements, sex crime laws… All are seriously broke; because they are attempting to deal with practical problems, in an impossible way. You can’t achieve the goals they’re trying to achieve, with the techniques and tools they are using.

We’re broken. We need to fix it. We need to protect society from real criminals, real dangerous people, real evil people; and we need to provide a strong incentive for the “casual criminal” (and we are all “Casual Criminals” now). But we need to do it, without destroying what it means to be American.

In order to do this, we must first reduce our prison population, not by releasing the truly dangerous; but by DRAMATICALLY slashing the amount of people we imprison (both today, and in the future).

The first thing we need to acknowledge, is that the so called “war on drugs” has not only failed, but was wrongly conceived in the first place.

Imprisoning people for drug use simply does not achieve the goals it is intended to achieve. It doesn’t reduce drug use at all. It doesn’t reduce crime at all, in fact it increases it. It turns people who might otherwise be productive… or at least LESS of a drag on our society; into total dependents. It frequently makes them into “harder” criminals.

It just doesn’t work.

Frankly, I think we should entirely decriminalize drug use and possession; even if we choose to maintain prohibition on importation, sales, and distribution.

Then there is the question of the proliferation of felonies… Damn near everything is a felony these days. Two students in Virgina were charged with felonies last year for THROWING SNOW BALLS. Schoolchildren have been charge with felonies for drawing pictures with guns in them…

Felonies are supposed to be reserved for “high crimes”. Those things which must be punished by long term removal from society.

Does anyone really believe it is necessary to send someone to prison for two years, for serving hotdogs wrapped with bacon out of a cart (yes, that is a felony in several jurisdictions in this country).

The fact is, we classify far too many things as felonies, which simply should not be. We need to eliminate most of those felonies.

What it comes down to, is that we should reclassify most non-violent felonies as misdemeanors, and eliminate custodial sentences for them; substituting EXTREMELY HIGH fines, and supervised restricted release (ankle bracelets etc…).

Combined, that would reduce our prison population by more than three quarters immediately (the drug changes alone would cover 60%). This would allow us to deal with the remainder of that population more appropriately. More harshly for those who need it, and with a higher focus on rehabilitation for those who are willing to make the effort.

Importantly, it would allow us to eliminate early release for those who have not made serious and genuine rehabilitation efforts; allowing prison officials and judges to exercise discretion appropriately.

Perhaps when we no longer have to be so concerned about overcrowding, and inappropriate early releases, and imprisoning those who should not be; we can restore some sanity to the system as a whole.

But that’s all related to the practical issue.. The pragamatic justice as it were..

The bigger issue here, is that under todays conception of jurisprudence, it is impossible to know or understand whether you are breaking the law or not. Whether your crime is a felony or not. Exactly what that crime might be, or what the punishment for it might be.

That isn’t law, or justice; and it isn’t what our country is supposed to be.

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

SCOTUS, Not Gov. Perry, Grants Hank Skinner a Reprieve

Hank Skinner will not be executed today. With about an hour left before Skinner was to be taken to the death chamber, SCOTUS put an immediate halt to the process.

Michael Graczyk of the Associated Press reports:

The brief order grants him the delay but does not ensure he will get such [DNA] testing. Perry had not decided on the delay.

[…]

In the order, the justices said they would put off the execution until they decide whether to review his case. If the court refuses the review, the reprieve is lifted, according to the order, and Skinner would become eligible for another execution date.

So it looks like the process is back at square one. If the court refuses the review and the reprieve is lifted, a new date will be set and Skinner’s life will be back in Gov. Rick Perry’s hands. Hopefully this case will generate even more attention than it already has and even more pressure will be placed on Perry and others to make sure the DNA testing takes place if SCOTUS doesn’t force the issue first.

There certainly are no guarantees other than the fact that Texas will not risk killing an innocent man on this day.

Related:
Hank Skinner Execution Update: Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Deny DNA Test Request

ACTION ALERT: Tell Gov. Perry to Give Hank Skinner 30 More Days

Former Texas Prosecutor and Judge Both Believe the State Has Executed More Than One Innocent Man

Hank Skinner Execution Update: Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Deny DNA Test Request

All seven members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Death Panel voted earlier today to deny Hank Skinner’s request to have DNA samples tested. Unless Gov. Rick Perry or the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, Hank Skinner will be executed this Wednesday as scheduled. The courts have rejected Skinner’s requests for the DNA tests for over a decade; the rationale being that Skinner failed to request the tests during the original trial.

Supposing for a second that the courts have a valid point,* I would argue that there is more than one interest that is not being served other than Skinner’s. For one, if someone other than Skinner committed these murders, the courts are allowing this person to escape the justice the victims’ families so righteously deserve. If Skinner did kill these individuals, there will be lingering doubts by his supporters and he will become a martyr.

I think there is even a more fundamental question though: What is the true purpose of our criminal justice system? If the purpose is to determine the truth, then the interest of truth is also sacrificed in the process. If, however; the purpose is process – regardless of how absurd/the truth be damned as Alito, Roberts, and the seven members of the Texas Death Panel apparently believe, then I suppose the courts are working just as they should.

Where will Gov. Perry/ SCOTUS fall, on the side of truth or process?

For those of you who abhor the idea that an innocent man could be put to death in the name of process and would still like to try to influence the governor’s decision to grant a 30 day reprieve, here is the contact information one more time:

Opinion Lines
Texas callers: (800) 252-9600
Out of state callers and Austin residents: (512) 463-1782

Office of the Governor, Main Switchboard (from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. CST): (512) 463-2000

Office of the Governor Fax: (512) 463-1849

The Innocence Project also has an easy petition that only takes a few minutes to fill out.

If you cannot get through on the “Out of state” line, try the main switchboard. I tried both today; I had no success with the Out of state but actually talked to a real person immediately who said she “would pass my message on to the governor” when I called the switchboard (so don’t be rattled if someone actually answers). Be polite but get your point across.

With that, let me leave you with a closing thought from Dallas Morning News Editor Michael Landauer:

We have just posted our editorial set for tomorrow’s paper urging Gov. Rick Perry to do the right thing and delay Wednesday’s planned execution of Hank Skinner. Is he guilty? Honestly, I don’t know. I tend to think juries get things right most of the time, but in this case, there is a lot of evidence that needs to be DNA tested to be sure. I am hopeful Gov. Perry will do the right thing. There is no downside to ordering a 30-day reprieve. The upside is that he looks like someone interested in the truth and interested in the kind of certainty that the proper dispensation of the death penalty requires.

Point of Clarification (March 23, 2010 9:29 a.m. edit)

I mentioned in the post that the DNA evidence could implicate someone other than Skinner and by not testing the DNA, someone else would escape justice. I have since re-read an article that Radley Balko wrote just over a month ago which reminded me of a detail I had forgotten. According to the article, another man by the name of Robert Donnell could have committed the murders. Witnesses say that Donnell had harassed Skinner’s girlfriend (one of the murder victims) the night of the murders. Donnell allegedly raped her on another occasion and had been stalking her up to the day she was killed. If the DNA sample turns out to be that of Donnell’s rather than Skinner’s, Donnell will still have escaped the justice the victims’ families deserve because Donnell has since died.

Related Posts:

ACTION ALERT: Tell Gov. Perry to Give Hank Skinner 30 More Days

Former Texas Prosecutor and Judge Both Believe the State Has Executed More Than One Innocent Man

» Read more

ACTION ALERT: Tell Gov. Perry to Give Hank Skinner 30 More Days

With less than five days until the scheduled execution of Hank Skinner, a DNA testing laboratory in Phoenix, AZ has offered to test evidence that Skinner’s attorneys say will prove his innocence. Chromosomal Laboratories has told Texas Gov. Rick Perry that they will run the tests for free if Perry agrees to grant Skinner a 30-day reprieve. Under Texas law, the governor has the authority to grant a one-time reprieve for capital cases.

The Texas Tribune reports that Gov. Perry has not decided whether or not he will grant the reprieve and said that any decision to test the DNA will be decided in the courts.

My question for Gov. Perry is what is there to think about? The man has been on death row for 15 years; what is the harm in giving him just 30 more days to determine once and for all if he is guilty or not? The state cannot give Skinner his 15 years back if the state turns out to be wrong but he could at least live the rest of his life a free man. The state obviously cannot give Skinner his life back once the state takes it from him, however.

Whether you oppose the death penalty or not we can all agree that the state should at least make every reasonable effort to ensure that the person being put to death by the state actually committed the crime. This is not an unreasonable request.

The execution is scheduled for March 24, 2010 so there isn’t much time left to act (see the contact information below).

Opinion Lines
Texas callers: (800) 252-9600
Out of state callers and Austin residents: (512) 463-1782

Office of the Governor, Main Switchboard (from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. CST): (512) 463-2000

Office of the Governor Fax: (512) 463-1849

The Innocence Project also has an easy petition that only takes a few minutes to fill out.

Related: Former Texas Prosecutor and Judge Both Believe the State Has Executed More Than One Innocent Man

Former Texas Prosecutor and Judge Both Believe the State Has Executed More Than One Innocent Man

Hank Skinner is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas on March 24th. Despite more than a decade of requests to have his DNA tested, Texas courts have denied him every step of the way. The Medill Innocence Project has even offered to pay for the testing to no avail. Skinner’s attorneys have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to force the issue before it’s too late. Given the recent ruling in Osborne, I’m not optimistic that Alito and Roberts would put their slavish allegiance to process aside long enough to allow the truth of Skinner’s guilt or innocence to see the light of day…at least until after Skinner is executed (maybe).

Former Texas prosecutor Sam Millsap wrote an op-ed piece in The Houston Chronicle explaining why he believes the courts should grant Skinner’s request, if for no other reason, to learn the truth. He also pointed out that only a week ago, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned Tim Cole posthumously some 9 years after he died while in prison. Why wouldn’t the same governor want to avoid making the same mistake again?

Millsap:

I’m not an advocate for Hank Skinner. I’m an advocate for the truth. If DNA tests could remove the uncertainty about Skinner’s guilt — one way or the other — there’s not a good reason in the world not to do it […]

[…]

It is cases like Skinner’s that ended my lifelong support for the death penalty. Any system driven by the decisions of human beings will produce mistakes. This is true even when everyone — judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys — is acting in good faith and working as hard as he or she can to get it right.

From there Millsap gets personal and explains why he, acting in good faith, may have been responsible for prosecuting an innocent man who was executed in 1993.

Why the change of heart? Millsap explained that one of his star witnesses against Ruben Cantu recanted his testimony 20 years later. Millsap said he believes the witness’s latest version of the events because the witness had nothing to gain from changing his testimony “except a whole lot of trouble.”

Beyond Cantu, Millsap also believes Texas has executed at least two other men he says “were almost certainly innocent”: Carlos DeLuna, executed in 1989 and Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004.

Millsap is by no means the only individual inside the Texas criminal justice system who recognizes inherent flaws in the system which kills more people every year than any other state. State District Judge Kevin Fine recently granted a pretrial motion declaring the death penalty unconstitutional due to his belief that innocent people have been executed in Texas and elsewhere:

“Based on the moratorium (on the death penalty) in Illinois, the Innocence Project and more than 200 people being exonerated nationwide, it can only be concluded that innocent people have been executed,” state District Judge Kevin Fine said. “It’s safe to assume we execute innocent people.”

Fine said trial level judges are gatekeepers of society’s standard for decency and fairness.

“Are you willing to have your brother, your father, your mother be the sacrificial lamb, to be the innocent person executed so that we can have a death penalty so that we can execute those who are deserving of the death penalty?” he said. “I don’t think society’s mindset is that way now.”

The article goes on to point out that Judge Fine’s ruling will likely be overturned on appeal and is more symbolic than anything else (i.e. a way to force people to discuss the issue of the death penalty). Fine is taking quite the career risk in a very pro-death penalty state which elects its judges. His critics, who like to point out that Judge Fine is a former cocaine addict, argue that his ruling has no basis in the law.*

And maybe Judge Fine’s critics are technically right** about his “judicial activism,” but can anyone really argue with the judge’s logic? Is it possible for sates to execute only guilty individuals 100% of the time when states have admitted to wrongfully convicting others for lesser charges? If not, what is the acceptable margin of error when we are talking about allowing the government to kill?

These are the kinds of questions which I hope keep Gov. Perry up at night with the scheduled execution of Hank Skinner and those who will undoubtedly follow.

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Disturbing Quote of the Day

“This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.” – From the dissenting opinion by Justices Scalia and Thomas on the question of whether death row inmate Troy Davis should receive a new trial after 7 eye witnesses against him recanted their testimonies against Davis.

So as long as the defendant has received a ‘fair trial’ and found guilty, actual innocence does not matter and the state can kill an innocent person according to Scalia and Thomas?

And these are who conservatives and some libertarians consider the ‘good guys’ on the Supreme Court? They certainly aren’t on this issue.

Hat Tip: The Daily Beast

Ronald Kitchen: The Latest Death Row Exoneree

Radley Balko made the following observation at his blog:

“Illinois has sentenced 224 people to death since reinstating capital punishment in 1977. Since then, 20 have been exonerated. I’m not sure what an acceptable rate of error in death penalty cases would be, but nine percent seems awfully high, doesn’t it?”

One wrongfully killed person at the hands of the state is too many, nine percent is completely unacceptable.

Colorado Senate Defeats Death Penalty Repeal by 1 Vote

Like déjà vu but this time in reverse, the Colorado Senate voted down the bill which would repeal the death penalty and use the savings to fund cold case homicide investigations by a single vote*. Though the Senate stripped out the death penalty provision just 15 minutes before the scheduled vote on Monday, the conference committee decided to put the death penalty back on the table to force each Senator to directly say “yea” or “nay” on the controversial issue. All 14 Republicans (mostly “pro-life” Republicans to be sure) plus 4 Democrats decided once again that its perfectly okay for the State of Colorado to kill.

Of the 4 Democrats who joined the majority, Mary Hodge who is opposed to the death penalty was quoted in The Denver Post as saying “It’s the hardest vote I’ve ever taken.” She went on to explain that she voted against the bill because she didn’t like how it conflated the issues of the death penalty and cold case funding.

Well congratulations Mary, Mary, quite contrary! Thanks to your vote the death penalty will remain. I hope you can sleep well at night knowing that you missed an opportunity to repeal this repugnant punishment because you felt the issues of the death penalty and cold case funding “are not connected.”

I beg to differ.

Colorado has limited resources to dedicate to criminal justice; the death penalty consumes nearly $1 million of those resources annually**. The victims of unsolved homicides have just as much right to bring their killers to justice as those whose killers have been convicted.

Most disappointing of all is the idea that far too many people have far too much faith in their government and their criminal justice system despite its many flaws.

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Last Minute Senate Rewrite Jeopardizes Colorado Death Penalty Repeal

Only 2 weeks ago the Colorado House passed H.B. 1274, a bill which would repeal the death penalty and use the savings to solve homicide cold cases, by a single vote. Foes of the bill in the Senate stripped out the death penalty repeal provisions and added an alternative source of funding to satisfy those who support additional cold case spending: a $2.50 surcharge on individuals convicted of a crime. According to The Denver Post, the rewrite happened a full 15 minutes before the Senate was scheduled to vote and with only a few days left in the current legislative session.

The Denver Post article goes on to explain how the rewrite puts the death penalty repeal in doubt:

Sponsor Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, blamed the amendment on some colleagues’ anxieties over the controversial topic of repealing the death penalty and said the maneuver leaves little time to work out compromises and no time for public hearings or fiscal analysis of the new draft.

“Some people are looking for ways to avoid voting on the core issue,” Carroll said. “This is a totally different bill that’s not had a public hearing. It’s gamesmanship that makes a mess of public policy.”

Carroll had the backing of a broad coalition of groups — including the families of victims of unsolved murders, whose painful stories helped push the idea that ending the death penalty could be used as a funding source for cold-case investigations.

With their needs potentially met, however, the remaining death-penalty foes in the coalition could lose one of their most poignant and persuasive voices.

I think Sen. Carroll is mostly right. Her colleagues in the Senate are probably thinking more about the 2010 election than any principle regarding the death penalty. With the rewritten provisions to fund the cold case unit and taking the death penalty off the table, her friends in the Senate can avoid making a controversial vote and not have to worry about angering voters.

I’m sure that Gov. Bill Ritter (D) who is also up for re-election in 2010 is most relieved of all about these developments. So far, Gov. Ritter has managed to remain on the fence on the issue with his finger firmly in the air to determine which way the political winds are blowing. Perhaps the only clue as to where he stands – when Ritter was the Denver D.A. he unsuccessfully pursued the death penalty in 7 cases.

Perhaps the “limited resources” and economic arguments was not the best strategy to pursue after all. While these are, in my view, persuasive arguments they should be secondary considerations to the real moral and legal question: should the state have the right to kill? This is the question that far too many politicians do not have the courage to answer.

The article continues:

Carroll said there is too great a risk of wrongful conviction to chance an irreversible penalty such as death.

“How many colleagues do we have in the Senate who believe the state or the government is infallible?” she asked.

As I have written on many occasions, infallible the government is not. This is especially true for our broken criminal justice system.

Colorado One Step Closer to Abolishing the Death Penalty

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The Colorado House passed the bill which would eliminate the death penalty by 1 vote.

The Denver Post reports on the dramatic moment:

In the hushed state House chamber, all eyes Tuesday stared up at the vote board, which showed lawmakers deadlocked 32-32 on whether to repeal the death penalty in Colorado.

All but Rep. Edward Vigil’s eyes, that is.

The Fort Garland Democrat sat at his desk with a hand held to his forehead, contemplating his suddenly crucial decision.

Heads swiveled in his direction. Whispers filled the silence. Seconds passed.

After nearly a minute, Vigil pushed a green button and, in doing so, pushed House Bill 1274 on to the state Senate in a dramatic 33-32 victory for death-penalty foes at the Capitol.

“Hopefully this will make us a better society in Colorado by not having a death penalty,” Vigil said afterward, “though I have my reservations.”

The bill would eliminate the death penalty as a sentencing option going forward and would use the projected cost savings to fund a cold-case unit in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Only 1 Republican voted in favor of repealing the death penalty on pro life grounds: Rep. Don Marostica of Loveland.

As evident from the article, Coloradans are very divided on the question of the death penalty, despite the fact that only 1 person has been executed in Colorado since 1976. How the vote will go down in the Senate and whether or not former prosecutor Gov. Bill Ritter (D) will sign the bill into law is anyone’s guess.

It’s my hope that Colorado will ultimately make the right decision and follow New Mexico’s lead.

Quote of the Day II: Gov. Bill Richardson on the Death Penalty

(CNN) — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill Wednesday repealing the death penalty in his state, his office confirmed.

Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime,” Richardson said in a statement Wednesday.

He noted that more than 130 death row inmates have been exonerated in the past 10 years, including four in New Mexico.

“Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe,” he said.

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