The Supreme Court decision yesterday allowing execution by lethal injection eventually will free the nation's busiest death chamber – the one in Huntsville, Texas – to pick up where it left off.
It's not a moment to celebrate for those distressed about the quality of justice meted out in the state's courts.
The six-month hiatus from state-sponsored killing allowed the Supreme Court to review a challenge to a widely used injection method. A hiatus is just what this newspaper has been calling for, but for different reasons.
The disturbing spate of DNA exonerations of Texas inmates is the most powerful argument for freezing Texas' machinery of death. Dallas County has the distinction of having more discredited cases than any county nationwide. Just this week, a 16th wrongful conviction was announced here. Thomas Clifford McGowan Jr. spent 23 years imprisoned by the state stemming from a rape in Richardson that he didn't commit.
It appears that a flawed photo lineup technique was the root of the breakdown in justice. Other prosecution methods and junk forensic "science" have been implicated by the exonerations. None have involved a death sentence, but they indicate flaws in the system that could have dire consequences for the 360 men and nine women on Texas' death row.
Gov. Rick Perry hailed the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, saying, "Texas is a law and order state, and I stand by the majority of Texans who support the death penalty as it is written in Texas law."
The governor's majority claim may be true, but support for the death penalty appears to be waning in Texas. Prosecutors are more wary of taking on marginal cases, and jurors want a higher standard of proof than the recollections of a purported eyewitness. Life sentences without parole are now an option for the courts.
Lethal injections may be cleared for use in the Texas death chamber again, but that doesn't mean executions have to go forward. State lawmakers who have doubts about the system have a responsibility to restate their case.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Several people from the abolitionist community visited the set in March and saw the episode being filmed. Apparently Alan Shore gives a great lecture to the members of the SCOTUS. The look-alikes they have of the justices are just amazing, specially how they spoof Clarence Thomas.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Justice John Paul Stevens who in 1976 announced an opinion allowing resumption of the death penalty, has now turned against the death penalty making him the only abolitionist person in the court. Here is NYT's article about this issue.
WASHINGTON — When Justice John Paul Stevens intervened in a Supreme Court argument on Wednesday to score a few points off the lawyer who was defending the death penalty for the rape of a child, the courtroom audience saw a master strategist at work, fully in command of the flow of the argument and the smallest details of the case. For those accustomed to watching Justice Stevens, it was a familiar sight.
But there was something different that no one in the room knew except the eight other justices. In the decision issued 30 minutes earlier in which the court found Kentucky’s method of execution by lethal injection constitutional, John Paul Stevens, in the 33rd year of his Supreme Court tenure and four days shy of his 88th birthday, had just renounced the death penalty.
In an opinion concurring with the majority’s judgment, Justice Stevens said he felt bound to “respect precedents that remain a part of our law.” But outside the confines of the Kentucky case, he said, the time had come to reconsider “the justification for the death penalty itself.”
He wrote that court decisions and actions taken by states to justify the death penalty were “the product of habit and inattention rather than an acceptable deliberative process” to weigh the costs and risks of the penalty against its benefits.
His opinion, which was not separately announced in the courtroom, was the culmination of a remarkable journey for a Republican antitrust lawyer.
During his tenure, Justice Stevens, originally an opponent of affirmative action, has changed his views on that and other issues. “Learning on the job is essential to the process of judging,” he observed in a speech in 2005.
But it is on the death penalty that his evolution is most apparent. He was named to the Supreme Court by President Gerald R. Ford at a time when ferment over capital punishment was at a peak. Less than four years earlier, the court had invalidated every death penalty statute in the country, and states were racing to draft laws that would test the court’s tolerance for a fresh start.
In July 1976, little more than six months after taking his seat, Justice Stevens announced the opinion for the court in Jurek v. Texas, one of the three cases by which the justices gave their approval to a new generation of death penalty statutes. The defendant, Jerry Lane Jurek, had been convicted of kidnapping a 10-year-old girl from a public swimming pool and then raping and killing her.
The new justice’s opinion described the crime in vivid detail before concluding that Mr. Jurek’s death sentence was constitutional because “Texas has provided a means to promote the evenhanded, rational and consistent imposition of death sentences under law.”
During the child rape argument on Wednesday, it was the lawyer for Louisiana who was giving the vivid description of the crime, recounting in grisly anatomic detail the injuries inflicted on an 8-year-old girl by her stepfather, the convicted rapist challenging the state’s death penalty law. As justices and the courtroom audience cringed, the air seemed to leave the room, along with any points the defendant’s lawyer had managed to make in his initial turn at the lectern.
Justice Stevens had remained silent during that first half of the argument, but now he pounced. “Could you clarify?” he began, interrupting the state’s lawyer, Juliet L. Clark. “Were those injuries permanent?”
He knew the answer, of course: the record of the case indicated that the girl’s physical injuries had healed in two weeks. His point was to bring the anatomy lesson to an end and refocus the argument on the legal issues. If it was also to throw the state’s lawyer off stride, he succeeded in that as well. Ms. Clark, reluctantly conceding that the injuries had healed, shifted to her legal arguments. Justice Stevens’s mild expression and tone never changed.
His renunciation of capital punishment in the lethal injection case, Baze v. Rees, was likewise low key and undramatic. While reminiscent of Justice Harry A. Blackmun’s similar step, shortly before his retirement in 1994, Justice Stevens’s opinion lacked the ringing declaration of Justice Blackmun’s “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Justice Stevens’s strongest statements were not in his own voice, but in quotations from a former colleague, Justice Byron R. White, an early death penalty opponent.
But Justice Stevens was not so restrained last June in an opinion dissenting from a decision that in retrospect appears to have been, for him, the final straw. In that case, Uttecht v. Brown, a 5-to-4 majority gave state courts great leeway in death penalty trials to remove jurors who express even mild doubt about capital punishment.
“Millions of Americans oppose the death penalty” and yet can serve as conscientious jurors, Justice Stevens objected then, adding that the majority “has gotten it horribly backwards” in enabling prosecutors to weed them out.
In his opinion on Wednesday, Justice Stevens said the Uttecht decision was “of special concern to me,” and used it to explain his journey from Jurek v. Texas to Baze v. Rees. Those who voted to uphold the death penalty in 1976, he said, “relied heavily on our belief that adequate procedures were in place” to treat death penalty cases with special care so as to minimize bias and error.
“Ironically, however,” he continued, “more recent cases have endorsed procedures that provide less protections to capital defendants than to ordinary offenders.”
In other words, capital punishment had become for him, in the court’s hands, a promise of fairness unfulfilled.
One of the court’s most frequent dissenters throughout his tenure, Justice Stevens, an optimist at heart, does not look back on every loss with such a sense of stinging disappointment. In 1989, he dissented vigorously from the court’s decision in Texas v. Johnson that flag-burning is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. While he still believes he was right, he told a Chicago audience of lawyers in 2006, he sees a silver lining: flag-burning has all but disappeared.
“What once was a courageous act of defiant expression,” he said, “is now perfectly lawful, and therefore is not worth the effort.”
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
This week is National Crime Victims' Rights Week. For me, it's a powerful reminder of one of the most important (and often overlooked) reasons to support a moratorium on executions. When crime rips the fabric of a community, one of our most critical duties is to support the victims. Yet we've learned so much over the years about the ways the death penalty can actually harm victims, by diverting resources from the services they need and by sentencing them to a decades-long court process that delays healing. The theme of this week sums it up for me: "Justice for Victims, Justice for All." I'd like to dedicate this week's EJEdition to all crime victims and their families.
New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty has developed an excellent model for bringing victims' voices into the center of the death penalty debate. And one of the movers and shakers behind that effort, Laura Porter, just joined the EJUSA team! Meet Laura in this week's EJEdition Profile.
NYT: Supreme Court Allows Lethal Injection for Execution
AP: Executions to resume after high court OK's lethal injections
SCOTUS Blog: Analysis: Limit may be imposed on death penalty for child rape
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Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Imagine that an 11-year-old girl who has no violent history gets arrested, charged with capital murder and is hidden from her parents for four days. During that period, the interrogators question her for hours without break and with no lawyer present until she finally signs a false statement that she can not even read. Later she is found guilty of negligent homicide and injury to a child, and finally gets sentenced to 25 years without any evidence or witnesses.
Unbelievable, right? Who is the prosecutor who committed such an awful act? The answer is our own Assistant District Attorneys Rosemary Lehmberg and Gary Cobb.
According to a series of investigative reports by Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle, on May 24, 1996, Derrick Shaw brought his girlfriend Judy Belton's 2-year-old daughter Jayla to the Murray home for daycare, even though he was told not to bring her there that day because Shirley Murray, the primary caregiver, was out of town. According to the Murrays and other persons in the home that day, Jayla spent the entire day sleeping, vomiting and sweating profusely. At 5:30 p.m., 11-year-old Lacresha Murray noticed that Jayla was "shaking," grabbed her and took her to her grandfather, R.L. Murray. They took Jayla to Brackenridge Hospital, where she was pronounced dead shortly after their arrival.
Lacresha was charged with capital murder for death of Jayla Belton. This all happened during the re-election campaign of District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who decided against protecting Lacresha's identity as a juvenile suspect and the presumption of her innocence by giving her name and photo to the press, which put her name and picture into national media as if she were a monster. Lacresha went to trial with her court-appointed attorney, Kameron Johnson, a public defender who did not do any investigation, probably because he had been given a budget of only $300 from the State of Texas to defend her. The problem was that there was no evidence against her. No witnesses, no forensic evidence, and not even a drop of body fluid or blood. According to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Lacresha could not even understand the type written statement she signed. "'What's that word? Home-a-seed?"' she asked investigators. After they told her that the word was "homicide," she asked, "What's that?" No one answered her. Lacresha spent three excruciating years in prison and went through with two trials until the 3rd Court of Appeals reversed her conviction.
Today Travis County residents will vote for a new district attorney in a run-off election between Rosemary Lehmberg and Mindy Montford. Lehmberg caused irreparable damage to Lacresha Murray and her family. She has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing or misjudgment in that case. Montford, who has been endorsed by the University Democrats, has been an outspoken critic of the office and the way it has handled many cases. We should give her a chance to prove her fairness and competence in the Travis County's District Attorney office.
Hooman is a government junior and president of Students Against the Death Penalty.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
ROSEMARY LEHMBERG - A TALE OF TWO CHILDREN
by Barbara A. Taft, President
People of the Heart
Gary Cobb, one of the perpetrators of the travesty launched against an innocent child, LaCresha Murray, in 1996, has been eliminated from the race for District Attorney. Rosemary Lehmberg, however, still holds a smoking gun. In the interest of changing the guard and securing perhaps a more just, merciful and law-abiding person in the office of Travis County District Attorney, I offer the following.
In 1996, Rosemary Lehmberg and Gary Cobb filed capital murder charges against an 11-year-old, with no physical, eye witness or forensic evidence physically linking either the home or anyone there with the numerous injuries suffered by a deceased two and a half year old. Lehmberg, Cobb and/or their subordinates assisted three seasoned APD detectives assigned to the case by advising them in circumventing the Magistrate Law, which demands that a child in police custody, before a statement is taken, be presented to a judge, who explains the ramifications of talking to the police and generally assigns an attorney. Based on advice received from the D.A.'s office, the detectives arranged for Child Protective Service (CPS) to leave this child alone in an empty building on CPS' campus to be "found" by the detectives, thereby eliminating any charge that she was in police custody and, in effect, waiving her rights under the Magistrate law.
No evidence, no confession, no case. Desperate, the detectives interrogated the 11-year-old for three hours, continually suggesting a scenario to explain the baby's injuries, badgering and bullying her, pounding on the table, threatening her grandparents, threatening her with incarceration, a child without an attorney, parent or advocate of any kind, a child who hadn't spoken with a family member for five days. 39 times Murray denied any knowledge of the baby's injuries. They frightened her into signing a statement manufactured and typed on site by the detectives, a statement that failed to explain the injuries; that she couldn't read, that she was "forced" to sign.
Because they used an illegally obtained statement from a child, because the circumstances indicated it may have been coerced, the conviction was reversed for the second time by the 3rd Court of Appeals. In using that statement, Cobb and Lehmberg knowingly sanctioned breaking the law and exploiting the ignorance, fear and youth of a child in lieu of real evidence in order to get their indictment, a conviction and a sentence of 25 years; however, like so many lawbreakers, they left behind evidence of their crime – the interrogation tape, memoranda from the D.A.'s office regarding the question of police custody and the courtroom testimony of the homicide detectives, more than willing to pass the buck for illegally obtaining a statement to the district attorneys on the case.
Further, Lehmberg and Cobb failed to pursue the truth of what happened to Baby Jayla. Available evidence indicated she had been injured 12 to 14 hours before her death, but neither the D.A. nor APD ever went to the baby's home to investigate. They ignored apparent old injuries and that Baby Jayla was "off the charts" in size and weight; but a child abuse case would not have garnered the state and nationwide headlines Earle secured with a child-killer case during a hotly contested re-election campaign.
How many other children have been wrongfully imprisoned, children who didn't happen to have a champion as did Murray, a champion who, thanks to the grace of God, got the attention of the New York Times and 60 Minutes? Two months after 60 Minutes aired "Juvenile Injustice?" Murray was home and the Texas legislature had moved to close the loophole Cobb and Lehmberg used to incarcerate an innocent child, a loophole which for Murray resulted in three excruciating, damaging years in prison and two more years threatened with prosecution and hounded by the press.
If we cannot depend on our prosecutors to exercise some caution, perhaps a little mercy before consigning a child to the justice system, to wrongful prosecution; if we cannot depend on them to pursue the real perpetrators and not the expedient or convenient scapegoat, what kind of society are we preparing for other children as they reach adulthood? Rosemary Lehmberg failed to exercise due diligence, acted to circumvent Texas law and in so doing caused irreparable damage to a very young child and her family. At the very least, she should not be District Attorney.
For more information on this case, including a transcript of the Interrogation of LaCresha Murray, see www.peopleoftheheart.org.