Category Archives: Death Penalty

Quote of the Day: Americans Cheer the Assassination of the Fifth Amendment Edition

Glenn Greenwald writes in response to the overall positive reaction of the drone assassination of American born Anwar al-Awlaki:

What’s most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government’s new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government. Many will celebrate the strong, decisive, Tough President’s ability to eradicate the life of Anwar al-Awlaki — including many who just so righteously condemned those Republican audience members as so terribly barbaric and crass for cheering Governor Perry’s execution of scores of serial murderers and rapists — criminals who were at least given a trial and appeals and the other trappings of due process before being killed.

From an authoritarian perspective, that’s the genius of America’s political culture. It not only finds way to obliterate the most basic individual liberties designed to safeguard citizens from consummate abuses of power (such as extinguishing the lives of citizens without due process). It actually gets its citizens to stand up and clap and even celebrate the destruction of those safeguards.

Sadly, among those that cheered this assassination of an American citizen are none other than pro war on terror libertarians Neal Boortz and Larry Elder. When Boortz heard that Ron Paul and Gary Johnson condemned the assassination, he called that notion “a bunch of horse squeeze.” After playing Ron Paul’s very well reasoned response explaining his objections, Larry Elder said that Paul “doesn’t get it” and “we are at war.”

I’m sorry gentlemen, I wasn’t aware that there was a “war on terror” exception to due process. But hey you guys are both attorneys who claim to hold the Constitution in high regard so what the hell do I know?

If there is anything our government does well its convicting people, putting them in prison, and/or executing them. If the government really had the goods on this guy, there’s virtually no chance he would have been found not guilty.

President Obama not only ordered the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki but the Fifth Amendment as well.

Related: Obama: Judge, Jury, and Executioner in Chief

With Less than 24 Hours Remaining Before the Execution, Doubts Persist About the Guilt; Innocence of Troy Davis

Despite seven of nine eyewitnesses recanting their testimony, the failure to find the murder weapon, DNA or other forensic evidence, and despite jurors from the original trial who say they would not sentence Troy Davis to death if they had it to do over again, the State of Georgia will execute Troy Davis for the murder of Mark MacPhail on September 21, 2011.

As I have pointed out before, eyewitness misidentification is a leading cause for wrongful convictions. The New Jersey Supreme Court has even gone as far as requiring that jury instructions advise the jury of the human fallibility of memory based on roughly thirty years of research.

Besides the eyewitness testimony the other evidence linking Davis to the murder were shell casings found at the scene that linked Davis to another shooting for which he was convicted. The problem is apparently, ballistics evidence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. It’s certainly by no means as solid as DNA evidence.

As someone who is opposed to the death penalty on principle, I believe that Troy Davis’s sentence should be commuted to life. The fact that seven witnesses recanted their testimonies is very troublesome whether they were mistaken the first time or coerced to give the testimony the police and prosecution wanted to hear.

But is this enough to say that Troy Davis is innocent of this horrible crime? As much as I would like to say yes, I’m afraid the answer is no.

Proving someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and proving someone innocent are two very different things. Once someone is found guilty, the burden of proof is shifted from the state to the convicted (i.e. no longer innocent until proven guilty but rather guilty until proven innocent). While it is disturbing that, for one reason or another, seven witnesses recanted their testimony the fact remains that two did not. Whether or not Davis could have been convicted on the strength of two witnesses rather than nine is impossible to say.

The shell casings in of themselves are circumstantial as is the testimony of the remaining two witnesses. However, when enough circumstantial evidence is put together, reasonable doubt gets less and less reasonable even to someone like me who would enter the jury box very skeptical of the state’s case (though I’m not certain that this would be enough in this case).

And what about the jurors who changed their minds about voting for the death sentence? Those who wish to see the execution carried out might suggest that these jurors could have been pressured (along with the witnesses perhaps) by anti-death penalty activists and/or Davis’s lawyers. As much as I hate to admit it, they would have a valid point. It’s not difficult to imagine a juror having second thoughts about condemning a man to die – guilty or not.

If you asked me, failure to meet the burden of proof of actual innocence notwithstanding, “do I personally believe that Troy Davis is guilty of murdering Mark MacPhail?” my answer would be simply “I don’t know.”

And I really don’t know and I don’t believe my friends in the anti-death penalty movement know either.

This is why I would not be comfortable holding a sign saying “Troy Davis is Innocent” or wearing the t-shirt that some are wearing at the protest which read “I am Troy Davis.”

I will gladly sign the petitions to whomever to have the sentence commuted on basic principle but I am by no means willing to say that Troy Davis is innocent of this crime. To my fellow travelers who oppose the death penalty on principle, I urge caution on this one as to arguing Davis is innocent.

I don’t know if Davis committed the murder or not but neither do those who insist that Troy Davis must die tomorrow. All the more reason why the execution should be cancelled and the sentence commuted.

An Innocent Man Was Probably Executed on Gov. Rick Perry’s Watch…Not That Anyone Cares

Is it possible that the G.O.P would nominate and/or the American people would elect for president a man who as governor more likely than not executed an innocent man?

An even more disturbing question would be: Could Gov. Rick Perry be elected president despite his efforts to keep investigators from learning the truth about the Cameron Todd Willingham case both before and after Willingham’s execution?

It seems we will have an answer to these questions in the 2012 campaign.

Apparently, these questions were not of much concern among Texans. According to a recent Politico article written by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison who ran against Perry in the gubernatorial primary in the 2010 campaign asked focus groups what they thought about the idea that an innocent man may have been executed on Gov. Perry’s watch. For the most part, the question was a non-issue. According to several (unnamed) former Hutchison staffers, they quoted one individual as saying “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”

Of course Gov. Perry continues to insist that Willingham was guilty of setting the fire that killed his three girls even though nine independent leading fire experts who have since reviewed the case all say the prosecution’s expert relied on science that has since been discredited.

Gov. RICK PERRY (R), Texas: This is a guy on his- on- in the death chamber, his last breath, he spews an obscenity-laced triad [sic] against his wife. That’s the person who we’re talking about here. And getting all tied up in the process here is, frankly, a deflection of what people across this state and this country need to be looking at. This was a bad man.

These are Willingham’s last words Gov. Perry was referring to:

No question, the words that Willingham directed at his wife are pretty rough. Willingham could have taken the high road but he didn’t. A bad man? Maybe. But to suggest that because Willingham’s last statement, which I agree is obscene and arguably low class, somehow “proves” that he killed his own children tells me that the Texas governor has a very low standard of proof.

Willingham’s spouse believed in his innocence in the beginning but as the execution date drew nearer, she changed her mind and made statements in the media that she believed he was guilty. How many men, innocent or not, in a similar situation would feel betrayed say something similar?

At Gov. Perry’s first debate appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, when challenged about his executive order that would have required girls age 12 and over to get the HPV vaccine, he said that the way he went about it was wrong but explained that he was concerned about these young girls getting a deadly cancer. He “errs on the side of life,” a statement I couldn’t believe he could actually say with a straight face given his unwillingness to err on the side of life with regard to capital punishment.

Toward the end of the debate, Brian Williams asks Gov. Perry the following:

Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. [Applause] Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

Gov. Perry responds:

No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which—when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.

Never struggled with the thought that there’s even the slightest possibility that an innocent man has been executed on his watch at all? The fact that five men who were once on death row who were exonerated on his watch doesn’t give Gov. Perry even a little pause? Five men who would have been executed had Gov. Perry had his way? And even after the recent revelation via exculpatory DNA evidence that an innocent man, Claude Jones was executed just before Gov. George W. Bush handed the governorship to Perry and ascended to the presidency?

If Gov. Perry is so certain of the guilt of every single individual who has been executed on his watch, why does he continue to stymie investigations into the Willingham case? Perhaps even more importantly, why does Gov. Perry continue to block efforts to allow Hank Skinner to have DNA testing which would determine once and for all if Skinner is the murderer Gov. Perry thinks he is before executing him this coming November?

What is Gov. Perry so afraid of?

Gov. Perry would have us believe that the “very clear process” in Texas is so perfect that there is just no way that a wrongfully convicted person could be executed. He is either in denial or doesn’t care if the occasional innocent person is killed by the state (and even if Willingham wasn’t a murderer, he was still “a bad man” so who cares right?). The death penalty is just the sort of a punishment that neither Gov. Perry nor the State of Texas can live without. Judging by the thunderous applause at the very mention of Texas’ 234 executions at the Reagan Library, sadly Gov. Perry is hardly alone in a Republican Party where the majority of its members ironically and hypocritically call themselves “pro-life.”

West Memphis 3 Freed with Alford Plea

MSNBC Reports a very big development in the West Memphis 3 case:

JONESBORO, Ark. — Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts were freed Friday after nearly two decades in prison and after a judge OK’d a deal with prosecutors.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley agreed to change their pleas from not guilty to guilty in the 1993 killings in West Memphis, Ark.

They did so using a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict them.

After the closed hearings before a judge, Baldwin told reporters that he had been reluctant to plead guilty to crimes he maintains he didn’t commit, but that he went along so as to help Echols, who was on death row.

“That’s not justice, however you look at it,” he said of the deal.

Echols called the 18 years of prison and appeals “an absolute living hell.”

“It’s not perfect,” he said of the deal. “It’s not perfect by any means. But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects. We can still bring up new evidence.”

I confess – I’ve never heard of an Alford plea until today. The article goes on to explain:

Friday’s move was a complicated legal proceeding that protects Arkansas from a potential lawsuit should the men win a new trial, get acquitted, and seek to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment, Prosecutor Ellington said.

The men agreed to what’s known as an Alford plea. Normally, when defendants plead guilty in criminal cases, they admit that they’ve done the crime in question.

But in an Alford plea, defendants are allowed to insist they’re innocent, says Kay Levine, a former prosecutor who now teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. She is not involved with the Arkansas case.

It seems to me that this was a compromise that neither the WM3’s defense team nor the prosecutors could refuse. The defense team and their clients believed they would ultimately prevail with the discovery of DNA evidence that was supposed to be presented in December of this year. On the other hand, the possibility of losing (again) would have put Damien Echols at risk once again of receiving a death sentence. Turning down the opportunity to have their freedom back must have also been nearly irresistible – even if it meant pleading guilty to a heinous crime they continue to maintain they did not commit.

For the prosecution this move was IMO about saving face and protecting West Memphis from being exposed to lawsuits or compensation the WM3 may otherwise have been entitled to. The prosecution would not have been able to get away with the kinds of shenanigans they got away with the first time due to the media attention the case has received and would continue to receive.

It’s a damn shame that this is the closest to just result as this case will ever get. No compensation from West Memphis to the wrongfully convicted. No real closure for the families. And perhaps most importantly, there will be no justice for the 3 boys who were killed by unknown person(s) who will now almost certainly get away with their murders.

While it’s true that justice wasn’t served with this plea deal, it’s certainly better than these young men spending another second in prison. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are now free men and can continue the pursuit of clearing their names once and for all.

The video below is the press conference that was held earlier today with the WM3 and their legal team.

Related Post: Disturbed Offers New Single Download to Support ‘West Memphis 3’

Tim Masters, Anthony Graves, and Cory Maye Each Receive Some Semblance of Justice

More often than not, when I write about the criminal justice system generally or write about specific cases the news is very bad. This time I have not one, not two, but three very positive developments in three separate cases that have to this point been very negative.

#1 Larimer County Commissioners will Not Cap Compensation Tim Masters or Other Wrongfully Convicted in its Jurisdiction
Larimer County, CO like most governments at all levels is looking for ways to save money to deal with budget shortfalls. But is capping the damages for those the county has wrongfully convicted a reasonable way to address some of this shortfall? A majority of the commissioners say ‘no.’ Kevin Duggan writing for The Coloradan reports:

A proposal to limit the compensation a wrongfully incarcerated person could receive from a local government got a firm thumbs-down Tuesday from the Larimer County commissioners hours before Tim Masters was formally exonerated for the 1987 murder of Peggy Hettrick.

With the Masters case in mind, the commissioners said they would not support a suggestion from county staff to seek state legislation that would cap damages someone who was wrongly convicted and jailed may recover.

[…]

Commissioner Steve Johnson said he understood the goal of saving taxpayer money, but a cap on damages wasn’t the way to do that.

The best way to avoid paying out for wrongful incarcerations is to not let them happen, he said. Those in the judicial system have to make every effort to ensure innocent people are not convicted, he said.

“It just seems to me that having a high award possibility is almost like a deterrent to law enforcement and everybody else,” he said.

Masters received a combined $10 million settlement from Larimer County and the city of Fort Collins last year to settle a lawsuit over his prosecution and conviction for the 1987 slaying of Hettrick. Masters served 10 years in prison, but his conviction was vacated in 2008 based on DNA evidence.

#2 Texas Gov. Rick Perry Does the Right thing by Signing a Bill to Compensate $1.4 Million to Wrongfully Convicted Anthony Graves
After spending 18 years in prison (10 years on death row) Anthony Graves was denied a modest compensation of $1.4 million from the State of Texas. As I wrote in February, Graves was denied the compensation because the Texas Comptroller’s office determined that Graves was not entitled to the compensation because the phrase “actual innocence” appeared nowhere in the judge’s ruling that reached that obvious conclusion. To Gov. Rick Perry’s credit, just over a week ago he reversed this injustice by signing a bill that would grant Graves the full amount of the compensation.

Perry on Friday signed a bill that will compensate Graves for his imprisonment, including more than a decade on death row.

With Perry’s signature, the legislation takes effect immediately.

State law allows $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment, tax-free.

[…]

A bill “relating to claims for compensation for wrongful imprisonment and group health benefits coverage for persons wrongfully imprisoned” — specifically addressing Graves’ case — was adopted by the Texas Legislature with no opposition during its regular session this year.

Kudos to Gov. Perry and the Texas Legislature for doing the right thing for Graves and other wrongfully convicted Texans.

And now last but certainly not least…

#3 Cory Maye Accepts Plea Deal; Will be Released Soon
The final chapter of the Cory Maye case is nearly closed. After spending nearly 10 years in prison, Cory Maye will finally be released in a matter of days. Maye accepted a plea deal to a lesser charge of “culpable negligence” manslaughter which carries a 10 year sentence but will be given full credit for the time he has served.

While this is not the ideal, just outcome this is probably about the best that could be hoped for. Yes the double standard between non-cops shooting cops by mistake vs. cops shooting non-cops by mistake is extremely frustrating but this is the world we live in. From a letter Maye provided Radley Balko to share with his supporters Maye explains:

I realize a lot of people are going to wonder why I accepted a plea. We just felt that regardless of the facts and evidence that pointed in my favor, there was the possibility that one or more jurors could not see it my way, causing a mistrial. That could leave me sitting here another nine months or more, or longer if it keeps repeating that way.

This is Mississippi, and some people refuse to let go of their old ways from the old days. I just didn’t want to put my family through any more heartache, and didn’t want to have to wait any longer. It was take a chance of a mistrial, or grab hold of my future and be the man/father/friend that I can be, and that my family loves and misses.

Given the shenanigans the prosecutors and their witnesses got away with in the original trial, one can hardly blame Maye for taking the deal, securing his release, and getting as far away from Mississippi as possible.

The Cory Maye case is the case is one that has transformed how I view the criminal justice system over recent years. The idea that an individual could be convicted and put on death row for defending his home against who he believed to be unlawful intruders who turned out to be police conducting a no-knock raid made me question everything I thought I knew about the system. As I followed this case at The Agitator, I was introduced to many other similar cases of injustice and concluded that our system is far too prone to error for me to continue supporting the notion of the death penalty. I’m hopeful that many others were similarly touched by this case and that this will eventually lead to reforming the system for the better.

As these three cases demonstrate, justice may not be possible but with people in high places doing the right thing (often from pressure from regular concerned citizens) a semblance of justice is possible.

1 2 3 4 5 10