Friday, March 30, 2007

A time for candor. A time for fairness.

Here is a great op-ed by Diann Rust-Tierney of National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, regarding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' firing of federal prosecutors:

Two years ago, as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced confirmation hearings, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty stressed that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer “must demonstrate the highest commitment to fairness, due process and equal protection under the law.”

We based our opposition to Gonzales’ confirmation on our belief that his track record on death penalty cases in Texas failed to meet this challenge. Time and again the legal analysis he provided to then-Gov. George W. Bush on the eve of executions failed to include any discussion of the most salient issues, including severe mental retardation and mental illness, abysmally poor legal representation and, in more than a handful of cases, even credible claims of innocence.

With the recent revelations that differences regarding the death penalty played a role in the dismissal of at least three U.S. attorneys, our fears, sadly, have been justified.

Then, as now, Mr. Gonzales placed Bush’s political agenda above honesty, integrity , and commitment to fairness. In Texas this took the form of cursory review – and then denial in every single case but one – of clemency applications as President Bush parlayed his “tough-on-crime” persona into a successful run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Today, Mr. Gonzales’ failed priorities have contributed to a politicized federal death penalty system instead of one based on fairness and integrity. Consider:

  • At least three U.S. attorneys – Paul Charlton of Arizona, Margaret Chiara of Michigan, and Kevin Ryan of California – were dismissed after clashing with the Justice Department over death penalty policy. Although the final decision has always rested with the U.S. Attorney General, a U.S. attorney’s recommendation that death should not be sought has traditionally been given great deference – until recently.
  • During the six years that President Bush has been in office (a span of time marked by Mr. Gonzales and his predecessor, former Attorney General John Ashcroft) the federal death penalty was sought 95 times, or about 16 times a year. That’s twice as often as the 55 times it was sought during the eight years of the Clinton Administration, roughly seven times a year.
  • Ominously, the Bush Department of Justice has sought the federal death penalty in states where voters, through their elected representatives, have rejected capital punishment. These jurisdictions include Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, and Vermont, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. (New York, a state without a functioning state death penalty, has a stunning 51 potential federal death penalty cases in the works.)

Perhaps the most telling statistic: The size of federal death row has tripled since Bush took office, while state death sentences and executions are down sharply from their historic highs in the late 1990s. Three federal death row inmates already have been executed under the Bush administration; another four federal death row inmates are nearing the end of their appeals.

What does it say that the federal death penalty under Gonzales is inconsistent with state trends, which show capital punishment is on the wane? It says, simply, that the Bush Administration has chosen to politicize the death penalty. That is wrong.

Both death penalty proponents and opponents agree on this: Fairness and integrity must be present at the highest levels of our criminal justice system, especially when a person’s life is in the balance. That is why, increasingly, groups such as murder victims’ family members, religious groups, and leaders in the law enforcement community are calling for fairness.

Mr. Gonzales promised fairness in 2005 when he faced confirmation hearings. He was not candid about his record on the death penalty then and he is not candid today. It is past time for General Gonzales to tender his resignation, for the President to nominate, and for the Senate to confirm an Attorney General who will “demonstrate the highest commitment to fairness, due process and equal protection under the law.”

Rust-Tierney is executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

MTV's The Amazing Break

You can watch the video online at or here:

Death Penalty News!

*** ACLU Foundation of Texas Legal Program's Continuing Legal Education (CLE) series for 2007!

Robert Owen, Professor, University of Texas Law School, will be presenting on Capital Punishment and the Right to Counsel. Lunch will begin at 12:00 p.m. and the presentation is 12:30-1:30 p.m. in downtown Austin, at Carmelo’s Italian Restaurant, 504 East 5th Street, Austin, Texas 78701. Attorneys will receive 1 hour of CLE credit for attending. The presentation is open to all; the cost is $30, which includes lunch.

If you would like to attend, please contact Kim Skotak by email,, or phone, 512.478.7300 x.104, for more information and to register.

You will find the calendar for the 2007 CLE Program below. It is also available on line at . We hope to see you at this event!

Each month an expert on constitutional and civil rights/civil liberties law will offer a CLE presentation on an issue of importance to the local legal community

*** MUMIA'S FINAL APPEAL 5.17.07!!!


March 22, 2007
Legal Update

Re: Mumia Abu-Jamal v. Martin Horn, Pennsylvania Director of Corrections
U.S. Court of Appeals Nos. 0 1-90 14,02-900 1 (death penalty)

Dear Friends:

Today notification was received that oral argument in the case of my client,
Mumia Abu-Jamal, is scheduled on Thursday, May 17, 9:30 am, in the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Ceremonial Courtroom, 1" Floor, U.S.
Courthouse, 6"' and Market Streets, Philadelphia. The NAACP Legal Defense
and Educational Fund, Inc., and the National Lawyers Guild, which have filed
amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs, are also participating.

This case concerns Mr. Abu-Jamal's right to a fair trial, the struggle
against the death penalty, and the political repression of an outspoken
journalist. Racism and politics are threads that have run through this case
since his 1981 arrest. The complex issues under consideration, which are of
great constitutional significance, include:

Whether Mr. Abu-Jamal was denied the right to due process of law and a fair
trial under the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments because of the
prosecutor's "appeal-after-appeal" argument which encouraged the jury to
disregard the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt, and err on the
side of guilt.

Whether the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges to exclude African
Americans from sitting on the jury violated Mr. Abu-Jamal's rights to due
process and equal protection of the law under the Sixth and Fourteenth
Amendments, and contravened Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

Whether the jury instructions and verdict form that resulted in the death
penalty deprived Mr. Abu- Jamal of rights guaranteed by the Eight and
Fourteenth Amendments to due process of law, equal protection of the law,
and not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and violated Mills
v. Maryland, 486 U.S. 367 (1988), since the judge precluded the jurors from
considering any mitigating evidence unless they all agreed on the existence
of a particular circumstance.

Whether Mr. Abu-Jamal was denied due process and equal protection of the law
under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments during post-conviction hearings as
the result of the bias and racism of Judge Albert F. Sabo which included the
comment that he was "going to help'em fry the ni - - er".

Recently the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office sent a letter to the
court suggesting that the entire Third Circuit should disqualify itself from
deciding the case of my client. We filed a reply strongly objecting to this
absurd request, explaining that the position of opposing counsel was
"utterly unfounded and should be rejected." On March 10 the court rebuked
the prosecution, advising that it had failed to follow proper procedure and
thus no action would be taken.

Professor Judith L. Ritter, associate counsel, and I are in this case to win
a new and fair trial for Mr. Abu-Jamal. The goal is for our client to be
free. Nevertheless, he remains in great danger. If all is lost, he will be
executed. Your interest in this struggle for human rights and against the
death penalty is appreciated.

Yours very truly,
Robert R. Bryan
Lead counsel for Mumia Abu-Jamal

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Queque

Dave Mass of the San Antonio Current was one of our guest speakers at the Media training workshop, during the 2007 Anti-Death Penalty Spring Break. You can read more on his talk at their new blog Chisme Libre. The other speaker was Pedro de la Torre III, Associate Manager of Organizing and Outreach for Campus Progress. Campus Progress has always been a sponsor of our projects by providing both financial and leadership support.

SA Current always has a fundamental significance for us at the TSADP. Because they were the first paper to cover our activities. A few months before my graduation from high school, I organized TSADP's first protest in front of Bexar County courthouse in downtown San Antonio on April 2005. We were able to gather around twenty students from local high schools and the Trinity University to protest execution of
Douglas Robert and Milton Mathis.

They also published a very hilarious piece this week on Rep. Miles and the art show censorship during the spring break. You can read the full article

It ain’t no easy trick for the Queque to escape not only the office, but the city for a couple days mid-week. Especially if our main goal is to check out the hottest new Nordic indie-rock outfits. But even political bloodhounds can’t resist the scent of SXSW blowing in from the 35: armpit patchouli, flat and fetid bargain beer, and freshly mowed grass (the class-B-misdemeanor variety).

To justify the trip, the Queque wormed our way into a 20-minute speaking slot at the Alternative Spring Break, which is the annual activist-training camp thrown by the Texas Students Against the Death Penalty for high-school and college activists. (Can you imagine the stories? “One time ... at death-penalty camp ...”). We met with Say-Town’s own survivalists, both from the International School of the Americas: Jew-froed, Matisyahu acolyte Sam Kohn and Aryan Hedayati, brother to Hooman Hedayati, TSADP’s president. Dave Maass embarrassed himself, but for details you’ll have to read his confession on our Chisme Libre blog.

The Queque’s pilgrimage coincided with the death-penalty art censorship controversy. Surely you read about it, perhaps in the LA Times, the NY Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian? Last week, the Texas Moratorium Network moved much of the artwork from their annual anti-death-penalty art show, “Justice for All?”, to the E2 Capitol Annex. Representative Boris Miles, a Democrat from Houston, happened upon these two images while leading his 5 and 8-year-olds down the corridor:

“Doing God’s Work,” a watercolor by Portland-based artist and Art Institute of Chicago alumnus Shanon Playford; and “The Widowmaker,” by death-row inmate and native Cuban Reinaldo Dennes, which links racist lynchings to the death penalty.

In order to protect his children from the horrors of art reflecting the horrors of Texas state policy, Miles yanked the two works off their easels and locked them in his office — that’s instead of complaining to the State Preservation Board, which oversees Capitol displays, or Representative Harold Dutton, who sponsored the exhibit. The first offends Christians, the second offends blacks, Representative Miles told student activists. Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, found it amusing and wished only that it had been a Republican censor instead.

The Queque is obviously a proponent of free speech, especially at the Capitol, the most public of public buildings, where ideas should flow as freely as snot from a crying babe’s nose. All things should be discussed under the Pink Dome, particularly the ugly stuff, like the rapes and abuse within the Texas Youth Commission. Rapes and abuse, by the way, are not appropriate for children.

Next week we hope to hear that Miles is tearing up the tile at the Capitol with his bare hands. This mosaic pattern is certainly questionable:

Thursday, March 22, 2007

MTV TRL update

The 2007 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break is going to be on MTV 's TRL
today at 4:19 pm (3:19 central) and then a longer version is going to be aired on
MTV's "The Amazing Break" on March 24, Sunday at 8 AM Eastern (7 AM Central) with
repeats to follow on other dates.

Also here is a 3 minute MTV commercial against death penalty in Spanish called
"mistake," directed by A Toscana.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Alternative Spring Break on MTV's TRL and the Amazing Break

The 2007 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break is going to be on MTV 's TRL today at 3:30 pm Central and then a longer version is going to be aired on MTV's "The Amazing Break" on March 24, Sunday at 8 AM Eastern (7 AM Central) with repeats to follow on other dates.

Total Request Live (commonly known as TRL) is the flagship television series on MTV that features popular music videos. TRL is MTV's prime outlet for music videos as the network continues to concentrate on reality-based programming. In addition to music videos, TRL to promote their newest works to the show's target features daily guests. The show is a popular promotion tool used by musicians, actors, and other celebritiesteen demographic.

According to Nielsen Media Research, TRL averages 351,000 viewers a day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Former inmates speak out against death penalty


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Former death row inmates spoke out against the death penalty Tuesday as part of the 'Day of Innocence" rally outside the State Capitol.

Protesters say not only should Texas do away with the death penalty, but it should not be expanded to include repeat child sex offenders who do not kill their victims.

"The death penalty is bad public policy," said former Alabama death row inmate Charles White.

Texas Senator and El Paso Democrat Eliot Shapleigh agreed, "This state must respect the rule of law."

Rally organizers say recent reports indicate that Texas may have executed three innocent men: Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna and Cameron Willingham.

"Those are just the ones we know about 'cause -- let's face it -- this is a penalty where the state can bury its mistake. Who knows about it?" Kerry Cook asked. Cook knows first hand. He spent 13 years on Texas' death row for the murder of a secretary until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction, ruling that prosecutors had hidden evidence.

"There's a legislative bill to expand the madness. Let's don't fix it, let's don't stop and repair it. Let's expand the madness," Cook said.

Cook was referring to Senate Bill 5, which would expand Jessica's Law and apply the death penalty to repeat child sex offenders. Cook went before a Senate committee on criminal justice to testify against the bill.

"I'm not showing compassion for the convicted sex offender. I would be in favor of castration and life without parole," Cook said. But he says the death penalty is not the answer. "We're going to expand the death penalty? The system is broken, it's not broken from the liberal point of view, it's simply broken. And this is not the time to be expanding it, this is the time to be doing something about it."

One of those taking part in the rally was Shujaa Graham, who's experienced both sides of the death row debate. His uncle, a policeman, was murdered. And Graham himself spent five years on California's death row until he was exonerated in the death of a prison guard.

"In my home, I never heard my mother or my father talk about capital punishment. So in order to get justice I don't have to see blood," Graham said.

Dianne Clements, with Houston based Justice For All, told KVUE News, "There's absolutely no evidence, none, zilch, nada -- that an innocent person has been executed in Texas."

She says if the system, as highly scrutinized as it is, was wrought with wrongful executions, those deaths would have come to light by now.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Students spend spring break opposing death penalty

By: News 8 Austin Staff

Most think spring break is a time for relaxation. But instead of the usual R&R, a few teenagers came to Austin for the week to learn about the death penalty.

The Texas Students Against the Death Penalty sponsored the event as their alternative spring break.

One student was on the fence about capital punishment, and came to make up her own mind.

"I always heard it was a human rights violation, but I wanted to get to know the facts, and thought it would be interesting to get a different perspective," Katy ISD sophomore Zainab Alam said.

Their alternative spring break was literally a working vacation. They learned about organizing protests and setting up nonprofit chapters.

Some of these students intend to keep the ball rolling once they get home.

"This gives me a lot of personal stories and equipment to go back to my school and start my own chapter of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty," San Antonio ISD junior Sam Kohn said.

The TSADP is made up of both high school and college students across the state. Texas executed 24 people in 2006, 45 percent of the 53 total executions in the U.S. last year. Texas has executed eight people so far in 2007.

Pictures - top: "Day of the Innocence Rally" below: Sam "Innocence and The Death Penalty", a talk and question and answer discussion with Sam Milsap, former Bexar County District Attorney. Mr Milsap prosecuted Ruben Cantu, but now believes that Cantu may have been innocent. Cantu was executed in 1993.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

2007 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break

The 2007 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break sponsored by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Campus Progress, Texas Moratorium Network, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Campus Progress, Equal Justice USA, Amnesty International, the ACLU, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Resist, INC Foundation , Victims of Texas and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rightsand several other organizations was a big success. Students received valuable training and experience in grassroots organizing, lobbying, preparing a direct action and media relations. During the week, students immediately put what they learned into action during activities such as the "Day of Innocence Rally" at the Texas capitol, when they visited members of the Texas Legislature and lobbied them on the need for a moratorium on executions. They also organized a protest in the heart of the SXSW music festival in downtown Austin during the Direct Action Day.

As a result of all their hard work throughout the week, the students generated hugely positive media coverage that helped educate the public on the issue of the death penalty. Scott Cob, president of Texas Moratorium Network compared the week's events to past struggles for social justice by saying, "this is an historical echo to what happened in the 1960s when people came down to the South during the Civil Rights Movement to help people register to vote, what they called freedom summers. This is very similar to what was going on back then, but here the issue is the death penalty."

Planning for the alternative spring break began last October. During the weeks leading up to the event, the students who organized the program had to solve various problems, such as finding replacements for a couple of speaker cancellations and finding cheap housing in Austin during the busy SXSW film and music festival. This year we had students coming from as far away as the UK, Mexico and Canada.

Austin was definitely the place to be during spring break 2007 for young people whose goals include becoming part of the next generation of human rights leaders. As one of the students said, "I could have gone to the beach and changed my state of mind for a week instead I came to Austin this week to change the world forever." During the spring break, students also had plenty of free time to enjoy Austin - the Live Music Capital of the World.

Texas leads the nation by far in number of executions. Texas performed 45 percent of all the executions in the United States in 2006. Since the U.S Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that allowed executions to resume after a four-year period during which they were considered unconstitutional, there have been 1066 executions in the United States (as of March 12, 2007). Texas performed 387 of those executions, which amounts to about 35 percent of the national total. According to the 2000 census, Texas has only 7.4 percent of the nation's entire population.

During the week students had the chance to meet and talk with people who have first-hand experience with the death penalty, such as, Kerry Cook, an innocent man who spent 22 years on Texas Death Row and recently wrote a book, "Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After 22 Years on Death Row". Shujaa Graham, an African American man who spent 3 years on California's death-row for a crime he did not commit. Moreese "Pops" Bickham, who was on death row when the Furman v Georgia decision was announced in 1972 abolishing the death penalty. He is now the oldest living survivor of the Furman v Georgia decision. George White, an innocent man who spent years in prison wrongfully convicted of killing his wife only to be finally exonerated. Christina Lawson, whose father was murdered when she was a child and whose husband, David Martinez, was executed in Texas on July 28, 2005 for a murder completely unconnected to the murder of her father as a child.

The students also got a lesson in free speech during the week when a Texas state representative took it upon himself to remove two death penalty themed artworks in an exhibition at the state capitol that had been placed as a part of the spring break. He called the artworks extremely inappropriate and highly objectionable".

Several of the students have said that they intend to remain active in the anti-death penalty movement when they return home, including Zainab Alam of Katy, Texas, a spring breaker who spoke at the "Day of Innocence" rally and plans to start a new TSADP chapter in her school.

You can find the full schedule of this year's events at Texas Students Against the Death Penalty's website:

Pictures from top to bottom: 1. Students protesting the death penalty during the SXSW festival in downtown Austin. 2. Protest at the Governor's mansion. 3. Talking to Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) during the Lobby Day. 4. Shujaa Graham listening during the "Day of Innocence Rally."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

More on Rep. Borris Miles and the Capitol art show

Here is the video of the art show and interview with Rep. Miles. Last Monday Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston removed a few art pieces from the Death Penalty Art Show because he found them to be offensive. Yesterday a group of students went to his office during the lobby day of the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break to ask him about his action. Unfortunately as you see Rep. Miles refused to discuss his action and ended the discussion.

The level of discourse in a state capitol building should not be reduced to only what is appropriate to children under 8. Creating public policy is not a g-rated Disney movie. We can not intelligently discuss the problems affecting the state by limiting how we discuss public issues to only what is suitable for a 5 year old. The state capitol is the one building in the entire state where we must be allowed to fully engage on and grapple with difficult issues facing the state. Lynching is a part of Texas history that continues to impact our society. Executions take place today most frequently in those states where in the past lynchings were common.

If anyone would like to read more about the connection between lynchings and the death penalty, read " The Rope, The Chair, and the Needle: Capital Punishment in Texas, 1923-1990" By James W. Marquart, Sheldon Ekland-Olson, and Jonathan R. Sorensen. "This book is the single most comprehensive examination to date of capital punishment in any one state, drawing on data for legal executions from 1819 to 1990. The authors show persuasively how slavery and the racially biased practice of lynching in Texas led to the institutionalization and public approval of executions skewed according to race, class, and gender, and they also track long-term changes in public opinion up to the present."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Censorship, Borris Miles style!

A few months ago Austin hosted an art show by Chinese artists displaying portraits and paintings of Chinese people in cages, being tortured by their own government. Not surprisingly the art show has been banned in china. Today Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston removed a few art pieces from the Death Penalty Art Show. When the show ran at Gallery Lombardi last May, the Austin Chronicle said "the show is nothing short of powerful.". The exhibit was organized by Texas Moratorium Network.

Now you might wonder what were those controversial art pieces that prompted Miles' action? The first one is an art piece by Shanon Playford titled "Doing God's Work". The second one is "Last Supper Trading Cards" by Annie Feldmeier Adams, which was awarded second prize by the jurors for the Gallery Lombardi show. The third one is a lynching art piece by Reinaldo A. Dennes.

I have always kept high standards for Rep. Miles. However today's events disappointed me. Rep. Miles does not have the power to confiscate the artwork owned by private individuals that were on loan to TMN for the display at the capitol. The sole purpose of showing the art pieces was to open a discussion about capital punishment and believe it or not this can not be done by censorship. Rep. Miles should not have taken the art pieces at his own discretion without first discussing them with the State Preservation Board. He may have opened himself up to charges of theft. These are valuable art pieces that should be handled properly. Would Rep. Miles pay to the owners of these art pieces any damages that might have been done? Now that our representatives can easily censor the freedom of speech in our State capitol, next they will probably close their office doors to anybody that disagrees with them. If we can not open a discussion about an important issue in our state, why should we expect the Chinese government to do the same? Maybe we should send these controversial art shows to another country like Iran for exhibition. I'm sure President Ahmadinejad would be happy to host an art show showing the hypocrisy of our Texas representatives.

"Day of Innocence" Rally on South Steps of Capitol

Today: 6:00 - 7:00 PM "Innocence and The Death Penalty", a talk and question and answer discussion with Sam Milsap, former Bexar County District Attorney. Mr Milsap prosecuted Ruben Cantu, but now believes that Cantu may have been innocent. Cantu was executed in 1993.
Location: Waggener 101 on the UT-Austin campus.

"Day of Innocence" Rally on South Steps of Capitol
Speakers include Kerry Cook, an innocent man who spent 22 years on Texas Death Row and recently wrote a book, "Chasing Justice"; State Rep. Harold Dutton; Senator Eliot Shapleigh; Shujaa Graham, an exonerated former death row inmate; Renny Cushing, Executive Director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights; Martha Cotera, whose 25-year-old son Juan Javier was murdered in a carjacking and drowning in Austin in 1997; Christina Lawson, Director of Victim's of Texas, a student speaker from the alternative spring break; Bill Pelke, chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and director of Journey of Hope, Lee Greenwood, mother of Joseph Nichols, who was executed in Texas on March 7, 2007; and others TBA.

For details visit:

Sunday, March 11, 2007

pre-spring break media coverage

Breakin' It Down! Wire Tap

Alternative Spring Break The Nation

Texas Alternative Spring Break UT Austin

Spring Break for advocates SMU Daily Campus

Students fight death penalty in alternative spring break The Daily Texan

Spring Break Altruism Austin Chronicle

Texas Alternative Spring Break

by Sarah Samuel
March 7, 2007

MTV is coming to Austin next week to cover students as they give up their spring break to participate in a week long program concerning the death penalty.

Created in 2004 by Texas Moratorium Network, Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break will commence March 12.

“Alternative Spring Break is an excellent tool for creating awareness,” said
20-year-old Jackson Smith who attended last year’s event. “It impacts students so
they will go back with a thorough knowledge and personal understanding about the
death penalty.”

From March 12 to March 16, students will participate in media training, attend a
lobby day, engage in panel discussions, and listen to speakers such as Shujaa
Graham, an exonerated death row inmate.

After the event’s first year, Texas Moratorium Network handed over the
organization of Alternative Spring Break to Texas Students Against the Death
Penalty, a University of Texas student organization.

According to Hooman Hedayati, president of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, the goal of the event is to educate students enough so they will not forget the issues and will go back home and affect other people.

The 24-hour college network, mtvU, covered the anti-death penalty spring break in its prior years, but this year MTV decided to include the event in its spring break series “The Amazing Break.” Ian Rowe, senior vice president of public affairs at MTV, said this decision came when they began hearing from young people and realized this cause was a grassroots movement in colleges across the country.

About 50 students from all over Texas and across the country have registered for this year’s anti-death penalty spring break, which is more than the past two-year’s attendance combined. Because the event is open to the public, many more Austin community members are expected to attend.

Registration is free, except for out-of-town students who must pay $25 for housing. Texas Students Against the Death Penalty arranged for those who need housing to stay in the Goodall Wooten dormitory near the University of Texas campus, and because of the increase in attendance, some students will stay in a hotel.

The rally on Tuesday will be on the South steps of the Capitol and the protest on Thursday will be conducted at the governor’s mansion. Students will attend workshops held at the University of Texas campus and the Texas State Travis Building. There will also be panel discussions in the Capitol’s committee rooms and a book-signing panel at UT on Wednesday.

“Students will learn life skills needed as young people to help shape a better world,” said Renny Cushing, a second-year speaker and founder of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.

Last year’s students rode a bus to Huntsville, Texas to protest the execution of Tommie Hughes for the murder of two Dallas women during a robbery. This protest was described by several participators as the most significant part of Alternative Spring Break last year.

“It was surreal to be present at the execution,” said Smith. “The whole experience was really emotional and personal.”

“It was rewarding to see them become engaged and try to solve a problem,” said Scott Cobb, coordinator at the Texas Moratorium Network. “The bus ride to Huntsville provided a bonding experience for the students, because it opened up many conversations about the effects of the death penalty.”

Alternative Spring Break hopes to have an impact on death penalty legislation in Texas, but according to many participants, its main impact will be on the students.

“There is no other human rights oriented spring break event that I am aware of where young people are invited to come, participate, and be trained,” said Cobb.

“Alternative Spring Break has already made an impact,” said Christina Lawson, a 29-year-old woman whose husband was executed in 2005. “It informs and encourages the next generation who will influence many others.”

The Austin Alternative Spring Break 2007 episode will air March 22 as an MTV news special during the network’s show “Total Request Live.” It will then air as the first of five segments in “The Amazing Break” on Sunday, March 25.

“This was a call to action that was different and intertwined with many emotions,” said MTV producer Megan Desales. “MTV likes to show ordinary students doing amazing things that will prompt other people in the future.”

Rep Farrar files bill to abolish death penalty in Texas

State Representative Jessica Farrar filed a bill (HB 3740) Friday to abolish the death penalty in Texas. She is the second Texas legislator to file such a bill this session. Rep Dutton has filed an abolition bill every session since 2003.

Other states also considering legislation to abolish the death penalty this year include Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and New Jersey.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Spring break registration

You can still register. All events are free and open to the public, both students and non-students.

Race to Execution Screening

Tuesday 7 PM - Screening of RACE TO EXECUTION. The movie reveals how, beyond DNA and the issue of innocence, the shameful open secret of America's capital punishment system is a matter of race. Once a victim’s body is discovered, his or her race—and the race of the accused—deeply influence the legal process: how a crime scene is investigated and the deployment of police resources, the interrogation and arrest of major suspects, how the media portrays the crime and ultimately, the jury selection and sentencing.

UTC 1.146 on the UT-Austin campus. Map. UTC is next to the PCL Library.

Race discrimination infects America’s capital punishment system. According to a landmark study regarding race and the death penalty, a black defendant who kills a white victim is up to 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white defendant who kills a black victim. RACE TO EXECUTION, a film by Rachel Lyon, traces the fates of two death row inmates, Robert Tarver in Russell County, Alabama and Madison Hobley in Chicago, Illinois. Their compelling personal stories are enlarged and enriched by attorneys who fought for these men’s lives, and by prosecutors, criminal justice scholars and experts in the fields of law and the media.

RACE TO EXECUTION reveals how, beyond DNA and the issue of innocence, the shameful open secret of America's capital punishment system is a matter of race. Once a victim’s body is discovered, his or her race—and the race of the accused—deeply influence the legal process: how a crime scene is investigated and the deployment of police resources, the interrogation and arrest of major suspects, how the media portrays the crime and ultimately, the jury selection and sentencing.

Hugh Kite, a white man, general store owner and mainstay of his rural Alabama community, was murdered during the course of a robbery on September 15, 1984. Less than four months after Kite was murdered, Robert Tarver, a black man, was sentenced to die. The prosecutor at Tarver’s trial rejected all but one of the African Americans qualified for jury service. Eleven white Alabamans and one African American composed Tarver’s “jury of his peers.” And as prosecutors have long known, a trial can turn on who is sitting in the jury box. Recent research indicates the extent to which the make-up of the jury affects sentencing: when five or more white males sit on a capital trial jury, there is a 70 percent chance of a death penalty outcome. If there are four or fewer white males, the chance of a death sentence is only 30 percent.

Whether in the rural South or the inner city North, virtually all-white juries are commonplace—and potentially lethal to black defendants. In 1987, in Chicago, Madison Hobley, a young black medical technician married to his high school sweetheart, lost his wife and son in an apartment house blaze. Hobley was accused of setting the fire. Police officers claimed that Hobley had signed a written confession but that spilled coffee had destroyed the document. A panel consisting of 11 white jurors and one African American juror convicted Madison Hobley and sentenced him to die.

With key 2005 Supreme Court decisions overturning death sentences in Texas and California due to racial discrimination in jury selection, RACE TO EXECUTION offers a timely analysis. The film examines the subtle yet persistent ways in which American culture consistently overlooks matters of race in criminal justice. Neither advocating nor repudiating capital punishment, the film catalyzes dialogues about the inherent imbalances that lead to inaccuracy and unfairness in the application of the “ultimate punishment.”

The film concludes with the exoneration of one man and the execution of another. In both cases, race is a factor impossible to avoid. Yet there are signs that the death penalty is being used less often in the United States and scrutinized differently than it was even five years ago. The Supreme Court heard five death penalty cases in 2005 alone. Is this progress, or are recent reforms still inadequate? The varied voices heard in RACE TO EXECUTION contribute to a thoughtful examination of the factors that influence who lives and who dies at the hands of the state.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sam Milsap, former Bexar County DA, to speak in Austin March 12 at 6 PM

Sam Milsap, the former Bexar County DA, will speak on March 12 at the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break. Milsap prosecuted Ruben Cantu, but now believes that Cantu may have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed in 1993.

Mr Milsap will speak from 6 - 7 PM in a room to be announced on the UT-Austin campus. The public is welcome to attend. It is free.

Mr Milsap will discuss the Cantu case and the issue of innocence and the death penalty.

There will be a "Day of Innocence" rally and Death Penalty Issues Lobby Day at the Texas capitol on Tuesday, March 13, 2007. The rally starts at noon on the South Steps of the capitol.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Trial in error

Why Joseph Nichols' execution must be stopped

The state's flip-flops on testimony have made a mockery of the system

Capital punishment is always a controversial issue. A fair trial should not be. Joseph Nichols' execution should be halted.

The murder of Claude Shaffer Jr. at Joseph's Delicatessen near downtown Houston on Oct. 13, 1980, was a heinous crime by any measure, but if Joseph Nichols is executed by the state as planned on Wednesday, it will also be a terrible injustice. Nichols has been on death row since 1982, convicted of firing the single bullet that killed Claude Shaffer.

At Nichols' trial, the state knew that Nichols did not shoot the single bullet that killed Claude Schaffer, because the state had previously tried and convicted Willie Ray Williams for firing the same single bullet. In January of 1981, Williams, who had confessed to shooting Shaffer, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death as the shooter. Williams has since been executed. According to the trial transcripts, the state argued: "Willie Williams is the individual who killed Claude Schaffer. That's all there is to it. It is scientific. It is complete. It is final and it is evidence."

Six months after Williams' conviction, Joseph Nichols' first trial began. Nichols was tried as an accomplice under the law of parties, through which a person can be held criminally responsible for an offense committed by the conduct of another under certain circumstances. The jury found him guilty but hung in the punishment phase. After the trial, the prosecutor questioned some of the jurors at a local bar. They stated they were reluctant to impose the death penalty because, as the prosecutors had admitted, Nichols was not the shooter.

Six months later, in February 1982, Nichols' second trial began. This time the state changed its story, and Nichols was tried as the shooter and not the accomplice. He was convicted and sentenced to death. In complete contradiction to the state's previous argument, the trial transcripts reveal that the state contended: "Willie Ray Williams could not have shot [Shaffer]. And I submit to you from this evidence [Nichols] fired the fatal bullet that killed the man in cold blood and he should answer for that."

The prosecution further argued: "You should think about justice when you think about this case. Is it fair and equal for Willie Williams to sit up there on death row when this man [Nichols] planned the whole thing and fired the fatal shot?"

It is an undisputed fact that a single shot killed Shaffer. For their convenience, Harris County prosecutors changed the facts from day to day and case to case, making a mockery of our justice system. This apparently doesn't matter to the state of Texas, as it refuses to give Nichols a new trial.

The state also suppressed evidence favorable to Nichols' defense. There were two witnesses to the crime, Cindy Johnson and Teresa Ishman. Johnson was the state's star witness because she testified to witnessing the entire murder. However, Ishman informed the police that Johnson "could not have seen the fatal shot being fired, because she (Johnson) was hidden in the bathroom when the shooting started." The state suppressed the identity and location of Ishman from the defense so that she could not testify at the trial.

The state of Texas now claims her testimony would not have made a difference and does not matter. If the state doesn't think Ishman's testimony would have altered the outcome of the trial, one has to wonder why they hid her true identity and whereabouts from the defense — and further, why they refuse to grant Nichols a new trial, one in which the jury hears both witnesses, instead of just one.

Joseph Nichols' court-appointed appellate attorney was shamefully negligent. After two years and being granted 11 extensions for filing an appellate brief, Nichols' attorney ignored the orders of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He was held in contempt, arrested and put in jail. Nichols' appellate brief was written by his attorney while incarcerated. His attorney was so inept he was ultimately disbarred, but the damage to Nichols' case was done. The state doesn't think this matters either, even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees its citizens effective counsel.

Capital punishment is always a controversial issue, a fair trial shouldn't be. It is simply outrageous that Nichols' attorney was in jail while writing his trial brief. It is also fair to conclude that the judge who failed to replace Nichols' counsel had little regard for due process, much less a human life. The state deliberately misled the jury by claiming two people fired the same bullet. That is simply dishonest. Finally, suppressing the identity of a witness whose testimony directly contradicts that of the only other witness is the ultimate corruption of justice.

According to the state of Texas, none of these issues matters. If a human life and the U.S. Constitution don't matter, what does? Joseph Nichols deserves a new trial.

Nichols is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday. Anyone who feels these issues do matter should immediately contact the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor's office. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, only Gov. Rick Perry can stop this terrible injustice now.

Published with author's permission. Lubetkin, a native Houstonian, is a documentary filmmaker. He can be e-mailed at alubetkin@gmail. com.

Take Action:

Tell Governor Perry to Stop Execution of Joseph Nichols (AI Online Petition)

In addition to sending Gov Perry an email, you can leave him a phone message at: 512-463-2000, fax him at 512-463-1849 (his fax line is often busy, so just keep trying) or write him at:

Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Act today to stop the execution of Joseph Nichols

On Wednesday, Joseph Nichols is scheduled to be executed in Texas for firing the single bullet that killed Claude Shaffer in 1980, despite the fact that the state has already executed another man, Willie Williams, for firing that same bullet.

Williams pleaded guilty to the crime, admitted firing the bullet, and was sentenced to death. Nonetheless, the same prosecutor then argued in Nichols' trial that it was Nichols who fired the bullet, and obtained another death sentence. Williams was executed in 1995.

Don't let Joseph Nichols become the second man to die for one bullet »