Tuesday, July 27, 2010

14 Shocking Facts That Prove the Criminal Justice System Is Racist

The following is Prof. Bill Quingly's 14 shocking facts for AlterNet that proves our criminal justice system is racist. While these might sound shocking to some of you, it doesn't sound so shocking to those of us anti-death penalty activist who witness this racism on daily basis.

The biggest crime in the U.S. criminal justice system is that it is a race-based  institution where African-Americans are directly targeted and punished in a much more aggressive way than white people.
Saying the US criminal system is racist may be politically controversial in some  circles.  But the facts are overwhelming.  No real debate about that.  Below I  set out numerous examples of these facts.
The question is – are these facts the mistakes of an otherwise good system, or  are they evidence that the racist criminal justice system is working exactly as  intended?  Is the US criminal justice system operated to marginalize and control  millions of African Americans?
Information on race is available for each step of the criminal justice system -- from the use of drugs, police stops, arrests, getting out on bail, legal  representation, jury selection, trial, sentencing, prison, parole and freedom.   Look what these facts show.

One.   The US has seen a surge in arrests and putting people in jail over the  last four decades.  Most of the reason is the war on drugs.  Yet whites and  blacks engage in drug offenses, possession and sales, at roughly comparable  rates – according to a report on race and drug enforcement published by Human  Rights Watch in May 2008.  While African Americans comprise 13% of the US  population and 14% of monthly drug users they are 37% of the people arrested for  drug offenses – according to 2009 Congressional testimony by Marc Mauer of The  Sentencing Project.
Two.  The police stop blacks and Latinos at rates that are much higher than  whites.  In New York City, where people of color make up about half of the  population, 80% of the NYPD stops were of blacks and Latinos.  When whites were  stopped, only 8% were frisked.  When blacks and Latinos are stopped 85% were  frisked according to information provided by the NYPD.  The same is true most  other places as well.  In a California study, the ACLU found blacks are three  times more likely to be stopped than whites.
Three.  Since 1970, drug arrests have skyrocketed rising from 320,000 to close  to 1.6 million according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S.  Department of Justice.
African Americans are arrested for drug offenses at rates 2 to 11 times higher  than the rate for whites – according to a May 2009 report on disparity in drug  arrests by Human Rights Watch.
Four.  Once arrested, blacks are more likely to remain in prison awaiting trial  than whites.  For example, the New York state division of criminal justice did a  1995 review of disparities in processing felony arrests and found that in some  parts of New York blacks are 33% more likely to be detained awaiting felony  trials than whites facing felony trials.
Five.  Once arrested, 80% of the people in the criminal justice system get a  public defender for their lawyer.  Race plays a big role here as well.  Stop in  any urban courtroom and look a the color of the people who are waiting for  public defenders.  Despite often heroic efforts by public defenders the system  gives them much more work and much less money than the prosecution.  The  American Bar Association, not a radical bunch, reviewed the US public defender  system in 2004 and concluded “All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if  they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is  occurring…The fundamental right to a lawyer that America assumes applies to  everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for  countless people across the US.”
Six.  African Americans are frequently illegally excluded from criminal jury  service according to a June 2010 study released by the Equal Justice  Initiative.  For example in Houston County, Alabama, 8 out of 10 African  Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from  serving on death penalty cases.
Seven.  Trials are rare.  Only 3 to 5 percent of criminal cases go to trial –  the rest are plea bargained.  Most African Americans defendants never get a  trial.  Most plea bargains consist of promise of a longer sentence if a person  exercises their constitutional right to trial.  As a result, people caught up in  the system, as the American Bar Association points out, plead guilty even when  innocent.  Why?  As one young man told me recently, “Who wouldn’t rather do  three years for a crime they didn’t commit than risk twenty-five years for a  crime they didn’t do?”
Eight.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the  federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white  offenders for the same crimes.  Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project reports  African Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences  than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white  drug defendants.
Nine.  The longer the sentence, the more likely it is that non-white people will  be the ones getting it.  A July 2009 report by the Sentencing Project found that  two-thirds of the people in the US with life sentences are non-white.  In New  York, it is 83%.
Ten.  As a result, African Americans, who are 13% of the population and 14% of  drug users, are not only 37% of the people arrested for drugs but 56% of the  people in state prisons for drug offenses.  Marc Mauer May 2009 Congressional  Testimony for The Sentencing Project.
Eleven.  The US Bureau of Justice Statistics concludes that the chance of a  black male born in 2001 of going to jail is 32% or 1 in three.  Latino males  have a 17% chance and white males have a 6% chance.  Thus black boys are five  times and Latino boys nearly three times as likely as white boys to go to jail.
Twelve.  So, while African American juvenile youth is but 16% of the population,  they are 28% of juvenile arrests, 37% of the youth in juvenile jails and 58% of  the youth sent to adult prisons.  2009 Criminal Justice Primer, The Sentencing  Project.
Thirteen.  Remember that the US leads the world in putting our own people into  jail and prison.  The New York Times reported in 2008 that the US has five  percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s prisoners, over  2.3 million people behind bars, dwarfing other nations.  The US rate of  incarceration is five to eight times higher than other highly developed  countries and black males are the largest percentage of inmates according to ABC  News.
Fourteen.  Even when released from prison, race continues to dominate.  A study  by Professor Devah Pager of the University of Wisconsin found that 17% of white  job applicants with criminal records received call backs from employers while  only 5% of black job applicants with criminal records received call backs.  Race  is so prominent in that study that whites with criminal records actually  received better treatment than blacks without criminal records!
So, what conclusions do these facts lead to?  The criminal justice system, from  start to finish, is seriously racist.
Professor Michelle Alexander concludes that it is no coincidence that the  criminal justice system ramped up its processing of African Americans just as  the Jim Crow laws enforced since the age of slavery ended.  Her book, The New  Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sees these facts as  evidence of the new way the US has decided to control African Americans – a  racialized system of social control.   The stigma of criminality functions in  much the same way as Jim Crow – creating legal boundaries between them and us,  allowing legal discrimination against them, removing the right to vote from  millions, and essentially warehousing a disposable population of unwanted  people.  She calls it a new caste system.

Poor whites and people of other ethnicity are also subjected to this system of  social control.  Because if poor whites or others get out of line, they will be  given the worst possible treatment, they will be treated just like poor blacks.

Other critics like Professor Dylan Rodriguez see the criminal justice system as  a key part of what he calls the domestic war on the marginalized.  Because of  globalization, he argues in his book Forced Passages, there is an excess of  people in the US and elsewhere.  “These people”, whether they are in Guantanamo  or Abu Ghraib or US jails and prisons, are not productive, are not needed, are  not wanted and are not really entitled to the same human rights as the  productive ones.  They must be controlled and dominated for the safety of the  productive.  They must be intimidated into accepting their inferiority or they  must be removed from the society of the productive.
This domestic war relies on the same technology that the US uses  internationally.   More and more we see the militarization of this country’s  police.  Likewise, the goals of the US justice system are the same as the US war  on terror - domination and control by capture, immobilization, punishment and  liquidation.

What to do?

Martin Luther King Jr., said we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of  values. A radical approach to the US criminal justice system means we must go to the  root of the problem.  Not reform.  Not better beds in better prisons.  We are  not called to only trim the leaves or prune the branches, but rip up this unjust  system by its roots.
We are all entitled to safety.  That is a human right everyone has a right to  expect.  But do we really think that continuing with a deeply racist system  leading the world in incarcerating our children is making us safer?

 It is time for every person interested in justice and safety to join in and  dismantle this racist system.  Should the US decriminalize drugs like  marijuana?  Should prisons be abolished?  Should we expand the use of  restorative justice?  Can we create fair educational, medical and employment  systems? All these questions and many more have to be seriously explored.  Join  a group like INCITE, Critical Resistance, the Center for Community Alternatives,  Thousand Kites, or the California Prison Moratorium and work on it.  As  Professor Alexander says “Nothing short of a major social movement can dismantle  this new caste system.”

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. He is also a member of the legal collective of School of Americas Watch.

Video of Entire Hour-Plus Long Discussion of Todd Willingham Case at Texas Forensic Science Commission Meeting July 23, 2010

Below are videos shot by Texas Moratorium Network of the entire discussion on the agenda item dealing with the Todd Willingham case at the Texas Forensic Science Commission on Friday, July 23, 2010 in Houston. The discussion lasted more than an hour. It is divided into seven parts because YouTube limits videos to ten minutes. There are also two shorter videos of Barry Scheck and Patricia Willingham Cox delivering their public comments at the end of the meeting.

Texas Forensic Science Commission Discussion of Todd Willingham Case July 23, 2010 Part 1/7




Texas Forensic Science Commission Discussion of Todd Willingham Case July 23, 2010 Part 2/7




Texas Forensic Science Commission Discussion of Todd Willingham Case July 23, 2010 Part 3/7




Texas Forensic Science Commission Discussion of Todd Willingham Case July 23, 2010, Part 4/7




Texas Forensic Science Commission Discussion of Todd Willingham Case July 23, 2010, Part 5/7




Texas Forensic Science Commission Discussion of Todd Willingham Case July 23, 2010, Part 6/7





Texas Forensic Science Commission Discussion of Todd Willingham Case July 23, 2010, Part 7/7




The videos below are of comments delivered during the public comment period, which took place a couple of hours after the main discussion of the Willingham case by the Commission.


Barry Scheck Speaking to Texas Forensic Science Commission July 23, 2010





Todd Willingham's Cousin and Stepmother at Texas Forensic Science Commission Meeting July 23, 2010


Saturday, July 24, 2010

TFSC panel must resist Bradley's efforts at sabotage

Todd Willingham's cousin (Particia Willingham Cox), and the Innocence Project's Barry Scheck have published the following op ed on Tuesday's Houston Chronicle accusing John Bradley, the Williamson County DA and Perry's appointed puppet to the Texas Forensic Science Commission of trying to halt the investigation of the science in old arson cases.
In May 2006, we asked the TFSC to undertake this inquiry about arson evidence. We submitted a 48-page report from an independent panel of the nation’s leading arson investigators, which concluded that the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was not valid. The commissioners then engaged their own national expert to review the matter, who agreed that the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was wrong — and further, that experts who testified at Willingham’s trial should have known it was wrong at the time. Days before that expert was to present his findings, Perry removed three commissioners, including the chair, Sam Bassett, and appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new chair. Bradley immediately shut down the Willingham hearing.
In an op-ed on these pages last November, Bradley denied charges that his actions were politically motivated and decried those “[who] have made exaggerated claims and drawn premature conclusions about the case.” He then assured Texans that the commission’s investigation “will be completed” using a “disciplined, scientific approach.” Instead, what we have seen so far is not a review of scientific issues but a bureaucratic effort to undermine, if not end, the Willingham inquiry by rewriting the commission’s rules and its jurisdiction.
Last week, after closed meetings that may violate the Texas Open Meetings Act, Bradley sent out an unsigned legal memo instructing commissioners that they have a “relatively narrow investigative jurisdiction.”
Employing “Catch-22” logic, he claimed that commissioners lack the “discretion or power” to investigate evidence that was not from a laboratory accredited by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) — which, as it happens, did not accredit labs before 2003, years after the Willingham fire. By this reasoning, the TFSC cannot review any pre-2003 matter, such as the Houston Police Department crime lab evidence, the scandal that gave rise to its formation.
In 2008, the TFSC carefully considered the jurisdiction question, and, with assent from the Attorney General’s office, determined that the Willingham and other old cases like it are well within its authority.
And rightly so: The Willingham inquiry into the use of unreliable arson analysis is an urgent matter for more than 600 people incarcerated in Texas whose arson convictions may have been based on invalid science. If its investigation is derailed, the commissioners would be turning their backs on these potentially innocent Texans.
Rather than becoming mired in bureaucratic shell games, the commissioners should take their cue from the FBI, which, after learning that a scientific test it used for three decades to do composite bullet lead analysis was unreliable, not only stopped using this flawed science but systematically reviewed its old cases and notified prosecutors across the country when it could no longer stand behind the testimony of its own agent examiners. The same should be done in this instance.
The people of Texas deserve a justice system they can believe in. But if commissioners keep allowing Bradley to rewrite the rules and sabotage the commission’s mission, their ability to redress the forensic problems that have plagued the criminal justice system in Texas will never materialize.
According to Grits for Breakfast, "Such transparent stalling tactics have been his modus operandi since the day Bradley was appointed to the chairman's slot."

Rick Perry's Puppet John Bradley Tells CNN "New York Lawyers" are Politicizing Forensic Science Commission's Work

Our members and others are in Houston this morning to attend the meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. We intend to let Rick Perry's appointed chair/puppet John Bradley know that it is Texans, not just "New York lawyers", who are concerned that our state government suffered an epic FAIL and may have executed an innocent person. We demand the investigation into the Willingham case be made the highest priority of the Commission and of the State government of Texas.

If Rick Perry had done his job properly as governor, the people of Texas would not have to be worried now that an innocent person has been executed in our names. The only person who has politicized the work of the Texas Forensic Science Commission is Texas Governor Rick Perry.

From CNN:
(CNN) -- A Texas state board is set Friday to revisit questions surrounding a controversial 2004 execution, with supporters of the man's family warning the panel is trying to bury its own critical review of the case.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for a fire that killed his three daughters. Prosecutors argued that Willingham deliberately set the 1991 blaze -- but three reviews of the evidence by outside experts have found the fire should not have been ruled arson.
The last of those reports was ordered by the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission, which has been looking into Willingham's execution since 2008. But a September 2009 shake-up by Texas Gov. Rick Perry has kept that panel from reviewing the report, and the commission's new chairman has ordered a review of its operating rules. Critics say that may kill the probe.
"They are attempting permanently to keep the investigation from continuing and moving on, and I do believe it's because they don't like the direction the evidence is leading," Willingham's cousin, Pat Cox, said Thursday.
The Forensic Science Commission's chairman is now John Bradley, an Austin-area district attorney with a reputation as a staunch supporter of the death penalty. Bradley has pledged to state lawmakers that the Willingham investigation "absolutely" will continue -- but said the panel needs better rules to guide its work, and could not say when the Willingham issue would move forward.
Thursday, he told CNN that concerns of Willingham's supporters were based on "a lot of misinformation."
"I think that's being used very much as a side issue to politicize, through some New York lawyers, the work of the commission," Bradley said. "The commission has been very clear that the commission is going to address the merits of the Willingham case."
The panel meets again Friday in Houston, and one of the items on its agenda is a legal opinion arguing that the panel has "relatively narrow investigative jurisdiction." The unsigned memorandum argues that the commission's mandate covers only cases on which a state-accredited forensic laboratory worked.
But because Texas started accrediting crime labs in 2003, Cox and others who have backed the family say that would mean cases such as Willingham's and that of another inmate, Ernest Willis, would be dropped. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who pushed for the commission's creation, calls the opinion flawed.
The Forensic Sciences Commission "was operating within the language and intent of the law when it determined that it had jurisdiction to investigate the case the first time in August 2008," Ellis said in a written statement to CNN. "Frankly, I am surprised that the commission is even questioning whether or not it has jurisdiction, since it unanimously decided -- with the attorney general's representative in the room -- to review the cases over two years ago."
Ellis, a Houston Democrat, serves as the chairman of the board of The Innocence Project -- the "New York lawyers" that have supported efforts by Willingham's stepmother and cousins to clear his name. The group advocates for prisoners it says are wrongly convicted, and Ellis said the commission's work "is too important to be bogged down in political bickering."
"Texans need the FSC to perform its work in a timely manner, so the public can once again have confidence in forensic evidence and confidence that the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free," he said.
But Bradley said the commission has never decided to apply the logic of the legal opinion to the case on Friday's agenda.
Bradley was named the panel's chairman two days before the Forensic Sciences Commission was to hear from Craig Beyler, a Maryland-based fire science expert. Beyler concluded the arson finding at the heart of the Willingham case "could not be sustained," either by current standards or those in place at the time.
The Innocence Project requested the investigation after a report it commissioned reached the same conclusion. Death-penalty opponents say an impartial review of Willingham's case could lead to the unprecedented admission that the state executed an innocent man.
Perry, who signed off on Willingham's execution, is up for re-election in November, and his critics have accused him of trying to short-circuit that review. Perry has said he remains confident of the condemned man's guilt, and police in the town of Corsicana, where the fire occurred, say other evidence beyond the arson testimony Beyler criticized supports the prosecution.
Cox, a retired nurse in Ardmore, Oklahoma, told CNN that spiking the commission's investigation would be a "blatant miscarriage of justice."
"The reasonable people of this country and the state of Texas can see through what this is," she said.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Todd Willingham's Lawyer Walter Reaves on What to Expect at Friday's Meeting of the Forensic Science Commission: They will "avoid actually doing anything"



Todd Willingham's last lawyer, Walter Reaves, has written a blog post on what he expects at Friday's meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission in Houston:

I was going to talk about the ridiculousness about the recent memo from the Texas Forensic Science Commission.  Basically, the memo says they don't have jurisdiction to do anything. They concluded that they do not have "discretion or power to investigate any and every complainant alleging professional negligence or misconduct involving a forensic science." The complaint must involve a "discipline" recognized by the DPS and accredited by DPS. In practical terms, that means they can't investigate the Cameron Todd Willingham case. Yes, I know he promised that would not happen, but anyone who actually believed him deserves what they are getting.

I decided not to talk about that decision, because by now everyone knows what to expect from  the commission. Their goal - at least under the leadership of John Bradley - has been to scuttle the investigation into Willingham, and anything else that might hinder law enforcement.  He has successfully done what many lawyers attempt - avoid doing anything. This new memo goes a long way to ensuring that they will not get involved in anything meaningful.

What struck me about the memo is the power DPS has to both decide what is a forensic discipline, and who gets accredited. DPS is not without its own problems, but despite those problems they apparently have the all knowing ability to determine who should or should not be accredited. It reminds of a story a someone told me about an individual who couldn't  get certified as a fire investigator. He ended up establishing his own organization, and certified himself; that organization now certifies others.

DPS is an arm of law enforcement, and no matter how hard they try they cannot divorce themselves from their identity.  One of the main recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences was that crime labs be separated from law enforcement. If the crime lab should be separate, then surely the authority to accredit such labs should also be separate.

Another thing that struck me, was  the definition of what is a forensic discipline. If it's not a forensic discipline, then no accreditation is necessary. The legislature exempted certain things, and DPS is given authority to exempt others. There are at least two that stand out in the legislature's exemptions - latent fingerprint examination and breath tests. If those two areas don't involve forensic analysis, then what are they? Fingerprint examiners like to talk about how their "scientific" their process is. As for breath tests, the very tests are based on scientific principles. The reason for exempting them probably lies in the fear that they might not be able to overcome the strict scrutiny given to other forensic disciplines.

The commission meets next week, and no doubt will discuss this memo. My guess is that it will be repeat of the last meeting - they will spend all their time talking about what they can and cannot do, and avoid actually doing anything.

Below is the memo that Walter Reaves refers to in his blog post.


TFSC memo

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Texas Forensic Science Commission Meeting Friday in Houston; Scheck and Todd Willingham's Cousin Say Panel Must Resist Chair's Efforts at Sabotage

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has posted its agenda for its meeting in Houston on July 23, 2010 at the Doubletree Houston Intercontinental Airport, 15747 JFK Boulevard, Houston, Texas 77032 (Map and directions). The meeting starts at 9:30 AM, but is expected to last all day and the public comment period will be at the end of the meeting.
Forensic panel must resist chair's efforts at sabotage
By BARRY SCHECK and PATRICIA WILLINGHAM COX,
INNOCENCE PROJECT:
This Friday, the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) is meeting in Houston to discuss, among other things, the status of its inquiry into whether arson investigations across the state have been based for many years on outdated and discredited scientific analysis and that the Texas criminal justice system has failed to recognize this fact. The inquiry arose from two cases — those of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis — in which arson had been found and both men were sentenced to death.

In Willis’ case, the system identified its error when Ori White, the prosecutor responsible for retrial after appeal, relying on the expertise of Dr. Gerald Hurst, realized how wrong the original arson analysis was. He promptly moved to dismiss the case, and Willis was ultimately pardoned on the grounds of actual innocence.

Cameron Todd Willingham was not so lucky. Despite asserting his innocence, he was executed in 2004 based on the same arson evidence that prosecutor White — and the arson community nationwide — had realized was scientifically baseless. Before Willingham was executed, Gov. Rick Perry ignored a plea from Hurst, the expert Ori White relied upon, that arson analysis in Willingham’s case was plainly unreliable.

Our interest in these issues is not abstract. One of us, Patricia Cox, is a cousin of Cameron Todd Willingham. The other, Barry Scheck, is co-founder of the Innocence Project, which exonerates the wrongfully convicted through DNA evidence.

In May 2006, we asked the TFSC to undertake this inquiry about arson evidence. We submitted a 48-page report from an independent panel of the nation’s leading arson investigators, which concluded that the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was not valid. The commissioners then engaged their own national expert to review the matter, who agreed that the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was wrong — and further, that experts who testified at Willingham’s trial should have known it was wrong at the time. Days before that expert was to present his findings, Perry removed three commissioners, including the chair, Sam Bassett, and appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new chair. Bradley immediately shut down the Willingham hearing.

In an op-ed on these pages last November, Bradley denied charges that his actions were politically motivated and decried those “[who] have made exaggerated claims and drawn premature conclusions about the case.” He then assured Texans that the commission’s investigation “will be completed” using a “disciplined, scientific approach.” Instead, what we have seen so far is not a review of scientific issues but a bureaucratic effort to undermine, if not end, the Willingham inquiry by rewriting the commission’s rules and its jurisdiction.

Last week, after closed meetings that may violate the Texas Open Meetings Act, Bradley sent out an unsigned legal memo instructing commissioners that they have a “relatively narrow investigative jurisdiction.”

Employing “Catch-22” logic, he claimed that commissioners lack the “discretion or power” to investigate evidence that was not from a laboratory accredited by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) — which, as it happens, did not accredit labs before 2003, years after the Willingham fire. By this reasoning, the TFSC cannot review any pre-2003 matter, such as the Houston Police Department crime lab evidence, the scandal that gave rise to its formation.
In 2008, the TFSC carefully considered the jurisdiction question, and, with assent from the Attorney General’s office, determined that the Willingham and other old cases like it are well within its authority.

And rightly so: The Willingham inquiry into the use of unreliable arson analysis is an urgent matter for more than 600 people incarcerated in Texas whose arson convictions may have been based on invalid science. If its investigation is derailed, the commissioners would be turning their backs on these potentially innocent Texans.

Rather than becoming mired in bureaucratic shell games, the commissioners should take their cue from the FBI, which, after learning that a scientific test it used for three decades to do composite bullet lead analysis was unreliable, not only stopped using this flawed science but systematically reviewed its old cases and notified prosecutors across the country when it could no longer stand behind the testimony of its own agent examiners. The same should be done in this instance.

The people of Texas deserve a justice system they can believe in. But if commissioners keep allowing Bradley to rewrite the rules and sabotage the commission’s mission, their ability to redress the forensic problems that have plagued the criminal justice system in Texas will never materialize.

Scheck is co-founder of the Innocence Project; Cox is a cousin of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Texas Set to Execute 462nd Person Since 1982; 223rd Under Governor Rick Perry

Today, July 20, 2010 Texas is set to execute Derrick Jackson. He would be the 462nd person executed in Texas since 1982 and the 223rd person since Rick Perry became governor. He would be the 15th person executed in Texas in 2010. 


Call Governor Perry and express your opposition to the death penalty 512 463-2000. Email Perry using his website contact form.
Nearly 22 years after two Houston opera singers were fatally battered and slashed inside their apartment, the man convicted of killing them is set to die Tuesday by lethal injection.
Derrick Jackson, 42, would be the 15th Texas prisoner put to death this year in Huntsville in the nation's most active death penalty state. The execution is scheduled for after 6 p.m.
A Harris County jury convicted Jackson and sentenced him to die in 1998 for the September 1988 murders of Forrest Henderson and Richard Wrotenbery, both 31 and chorus members at the Houston Grand Opera.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Monday rejected an appeal from Jackson's lawyers. They had argued prosecutors improperly withheld some evidence from Jackson's trial attorneys and raised questions about whether Jackson could be mentally impaired and therefore ineligible for execution.
Jackson was arrested in 1992 for three robberies and took a plea bargain that put him in prison for 12 years. He was in prison on those convictions when authorities began looking at him as a suspect in the 1988 slayings.
"I made some bad decisions," Jackson told The Associated Press recently from a tiny visiting cage outside death row.

From the Houston Chronicle:

Carl Wrotenbery of Fort Worth, said the impact of his son's death will "go with me to my grave."
The elder Wrotenbery, a retired library director at Fort Worth's Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he is ambivalent about capital punishment. "When you come to the personal aspect of it, pure logic says for someone to do a crime of this nature, unprovoked — Alan was in the wrong place at the wrong time - it's hard for me to think the death penalty is unjustified."
Wrotenbery said he plans to witness the execution. "I've made my reservation," he said. "I feel like it's my duty as a father and head of the clan. I feel a responsibility to be there and see this done for other family members who, though they may have strong feelings, won't be able. I have no real desire to be there. I don't expect to feel anything different. It's just an unpleasant duty."

Crime-lab problems

Wrotenbery said the case, marked by false investigative starts and long delays, was hard on his family.
Years after Jackson's conviction, the way police handled the case was criticized by Michael Bromwich, the independent investigator hired to review operations of the department's troubled crime lab.
In his 2007 report, Brom-wich found that a technician apparently manipulated lab findings to bolster the case against detectives' prime suspect of the moment.
When an early suspect had Type O blood, Bromwich wrote, the employee neglected to report that Type B blood was found on an apartment door. Only when a charge was lodged against Jackson, who has Type B blood, was the fact added to the report.
In his death row interview, Jackson challenged those fingerprint findings and blasted a series of defense lawyers who, he said, "helped me get down to the execution chamber."
"I don't stay up at night and have nightmares," Jackson said. "I pray for myself. I hate the fact that I'm being blamed and will be killed, but it's more sadness than hate."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jackson slated for death after 18 years on Row

   Derrick Jackson


By Elizabeth Stein
Producer, Execution Watch

HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS -- A man condemned on evidence called into question by a probe of the Houston Police Department's crime lab is scheduled to be put to death Tuesday. Unless Derrick Jackson is fortunate enough to receive a stay, Execution Watch will provide coverage.

RADIO PROGRAM PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH

July 20, 2010, Tues., 6-7 pm Central Time
Listen on KPFT's HD2 channel, 90.1 FM Houston, or
Go to www.executionwatch. org at 6 p.m. CT, click on “Listen.”

SCHEDULED TO BE EXECUTED
  DERRICK JACKSON, 42, was condemned in 1998 for the 1988 stabbing deaths of Houston Grand Opera tenors Richard Alan Wrotenbery and Forrest G. Henderson in their Houston apartment. Jackson, formerly of Missouri City, has insisted on his innocence. He was linked to the slayings by DNA evidence and a bloody fingerprint on the apartment door. The discovery of widespread problems at the HPD crime lab led Harris County D.A. investigators to order the evidence retested. (More background at www.executionwatch. org > Backpage on Derrick Leon Jackson.)

SHOW LINEUP
  Host: RAY HILL is an ex-convict who has lost many friends to the death chamber. His civil rights activism has included shepherding several cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ray also hosts the Prison Show, now in its 31st year, www.theprisonshow. org .

  Legal Analyst:  ROBERT ROSENBERG, a Houston attorney, has been handling death row cases since the 1980s. As a civil rights lawyer, he has been tapped by the American Civil Liberties Union to represent some of its clients.

  Featured Interview: KENNETH WILLIAMS is a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He will be a visiting lecturer at Houston's South Texas School of Law during the coming academic year. He is a nationally regarded authority on capital punishment. A member of the Death Penalty Litigation Committee of the State Bar of Texas, Williams has authored numerous articles and spoken around the country on capital punishment. He continues to represent inmates on Texas death row.

  Reporter, Death House, Huntsville: GLORIA RUBAC, a leader of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, which may be followed on Facebook.

   Reporter, Houston, Vigil: CHARLIE DOYLE. A transplanted New Yorker, he and his wife are members of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty who have established a vigil on execution nights at St. Patrick Cathedral in El Paso.  (www.tcadp.org)

NEXT SCHEDULED EXECTION
  On Aug. 17, Texas plans to execute PETER CANTU. Execution Watch will broadcast. Details: www.executionwatch.org

  PRODUCER: Elizabeth Ann Stein, eliza.tx.usa @gmail.com.
  TECHNICAL DIRECTOR: Otis Maclay, omaclay @gmail.com.
  THEME MUSIC: “Death by Texas,” Victoria Panetti, www.myspace. com/shemonster

(END)

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Public Has Been Offically Warned about Sharon Keller; Read Text of the Decision Available on the Blog

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has officially found that Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller has cast "public discredit on the judiciary or the administration of justice" and "did not accord Richard with access to open courts or the right to be heard according to law". They also found that Keller's conduct constitutes "willful or persistent conduct inconsistent with the proper performance of her duties as a judge".

In 2007, Texas Moratorium Network filed a judicial complaint against Keller after she said "we close at 5" on the day of the scheduled execution of Michael Richard. Today the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued its decision and reprimanded Sharon Keller with a "Public Warning".

The people of Texas have been publically warned today that we have an ethically compromised judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who did not accord a person about to be executed with access to open courts or the right to be heard according to law, yet she has been allowed to keep her job. Sharon Keller's actions were not in accordance with the accepted principles of right and wrong that govern the conduct of her profession as a judge. This is the worst case scenario for Texas, because now we know that the problems in the Texas death penalty system reach to Texas' highest ranking criminal appeals court, and yet the judge who closed the doors to justice remains on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

A public warning is useful, but it is not enough. Sharon Keller should be removed from office. The public warning tells us that if you seek justice in Texas, proceed with caution because Sharon Keller is the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The Texas Legislature can help restore integrity to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals by impeaching and removing Keller from office. We now have the findings of fact from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, so it is confirmed that Keller has brought discredit to the Texas judiciary by her misconduct hendering access to justice. It is up to the people of Texas now to take the findings of fact and act on them by seeking to remove Keller from office through their elected representatives using the impeachment process or at the ballot box in 2012 when she is up for re-election. Since Keller is not up for re-election for another two years, it is in the best interest of justice that the Legislature removes her from office.




State Commission on Judicial Conduct Findings, Conclusions and Order of Public Warning in Case of Judge Sha...


In 2007, Texas Moratorium Network filed a judicial complaint against Judge Sharon Keller after she said "we close at 5" on the day of the scheduled execution of Michael Richard. Today the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued its decision and gave Sharon Keller a "Public Warning".




In a post on the Texas Moratorium Network blog on October 3, 2007, we said "Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller should resign or be impeached and removed from office for her conduct regarding the execution of Michael Richard. As long as Keller is in office, the people of Texas can not be sure that justice is being done with integrity".

Texas Moratorium Network filed a complaint against Keller (pdf) with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct that was signed by about 1900 people. We delivered a copy of the complaint to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (video). We held a protest in front of her house (video). We revised our complaint to the Commission by sending them a copy of the Execution Day Procedures, which we obtained from Keller through a Public Information Request. She had first sent that document to R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle, but we requested she send us a copy so we could send it to the Commission. We went to the Legislature to ask legislators to sign on to a complaint or to file their own. State Rep Dutton, Olivo, Farrar and Coleman all signed one of the complaints or filed their own. We went back to the Legislature in December 2008 to ask Lon Burmam to file an impeachment resolution.


Ten years of a Death Penalty Moratorium in Illinois - Governor Has No Plans to Lift it

News from Illinois:
Gov. Pat Quinn would maintain Illinois’ 10-year moratorium on the death penalty while his Republican opponent, state Sen. Bill Brady, would lift it, the two candidates’ campaigns said this week.

Their comments come at the same time as the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty released the results of a poll it commissioned showing that a majority of Illinois registered voters prefer some penalty other than death for the crime of murder.

The poll also found that fewer than 40 percent of registered voters even know Illinois has a death penalty.

“We really view the results as verifying what we already knew,” said Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the coalition. “People assume there is a slight preference (for capital punishment). That’s not reality.”

Quinn’s campaign said the governor has no “immediate plans” to lift the moratorium on executions that was put in place by then-Gov. George Ryan in 2000. Both ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Quinn have maintained it.

“Although he supports capital punishment when applied carefully and fairly, he is deeply concerned by the possibility of an innocent man or woman being executed,” campaign spokeswoman Mica Matsoff said in a statement. “He believes the current moratorium gives the state an opportunity to reflect on the issue and create safeguards to make sure that the death penalty is not being imposed improperly in Illinois.”

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Audio Interview with new Director of Office of Capital Writs - Brad Levenson

The Texas Tribune's Brandi Grissom has an audio interview with Brad Levenson, a deputy federal public defender in California, who will lead the first ever Texas Office of Capital Writs starting Sept. 1. His new job will require him to represent Texas death row inmates who claim their trials were botched and that they were wrongly convicted.

In one audio snippet, Levenson says he has a moral and ethical opposition to the death penalty and will work tirelessly to defend his clients on Texas death row.

Visit the Texas Tribune to hear the audio recordings.

From the Tribune:
Texas lawmakers created the office in 2009 after a series of investigative reports and studies of the criminal justice system revealed serious problems with the quality of legal representation for indigent defendants on death row. Some of the lawyers whom judges had appointed to represent capital defendants had no death row experience, some had mental illness, some had abandoned their death row clients, and some of the lawyers chosen by judges were dead.

So lawmakers created the Office of Capital Writs to provide better representation for people on death row who can't afford to pay their own lawyers to challenge their sentences. Levenson, who has extensive experience with post-conviction cases in California, has only tried one such case in Texas, which has the busiest death row in the nation. And even before he's opened his office, he must deal with a 5 percent budget cut. He'll have to hire about 10 staffers and work about a dozen cases a year with $991,000, down from what was supposed to be a $1 million budget. But Levenson said he's up for the challenge.

Levenson said Texas wasn't even on his radar screen until 2008, when his office was asked to represent Texas death row inmate Clinton Lee Young. He was convicted of murdering two Texas men in 2001, and a Midland jury sentenced him to death. But Young and his lawyers claim the prosecution withheld evidence at trial that could have helped him, and last year the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sent his case back to the trial court. Working on that case — and traveling in the Lone Star State — piqued Levenson's interest.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Throwing Mumia Abu-Jamal Under the Bus


By Dave Lindorff
"I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."
--Frederick Douglass

On the evening of February 25, participants at the Fourth World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva, Switzerland had assembled from all over the globe for a dramatic Voices of Victims evening. It got more dramatic than they had anticipated though, when suddenly a cell phone rang and Robert R. Bryan, lead defense attorney for Mumia Abu-Jamal, jumped up on the stage to announce that his client had called him from death row in Pennsylvania.

The audience sat in rapt silence as the emcee held the phone up to the microphone. Abu-Jamal, on death row for 28 years after a widely disputed conviction for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, greeted the delegates and then, as he has done on many occasions before, described to them the horrors of life in prison for the 20,000 people around the world who are awaiting execution.

A small group of American death penalty abolitionist leaders, led by Renny Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, stalked out of the hall. Two members of MVFHR, however, remained in the hall: Bill Babbitt, whose brother Manny, a Vietnam vet suffering acute post-traumatic stress disorder, was executed in California; and Bill Pelke, whose grandmother was murdered by a girl whom he later befriended and helped to spare from execution. Babbitt even joined Bryan onstage during Abu-Jamal's brief address.

What neither Babbitt nor Pelke, nor Abu-Jamal and his attorney, Bryan, knew at the time was that way back in December, leaders and individual board members of several of the organizations in the US abolitionist movement had signed--without their full boards’ or their memberships’ knowledge--a “confidential” memorandum, which they then sent to the French organizers of the World Congress, stating bluntly that, “As international representatives of the US abolition movement, we cannot agree to the involvement of Abu-Jamal or his lawyers in the World Congress beyond attendance.”

Purporting to be from “the US members of the Steering Committee” of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (though hardly an inclusive list of that committee’s membership) and titled, “Involvement of Mumia Abu-Jamal endangers the US coalition for abolition of the death penalty,” the memo claimed that the French organizers of the World Congress, Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM), had arranged to have Abu-Jamal speak “over objection.” The memo further further asserted that the abolitionist movement in the US is trying to “cultivate” the support of the ultra-conservative and staunchly pro-death penalty Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), an organization representing some 35,000 police officers in the US that advocates the execution of Abu-Jamal and all other prisoners convicted of killing of police officers. The FOP, said the memo, has “announced a boycott of organizations and individuals who support Abu-Jamal,” and therefore anything done by the Congress to aid his cause would be “dangerously counter-productive to the abolition movement in the US.”

ThisCantBeHappening! this past week obtained a copy of that secret memorandum.

When we showed it to some other members of the boards of the organizations whose officers or individual board members had signed their names to it, responses ranged from consternation to outrage. Babbitt’s brother Manny was killed as a direct result of a corrupt law enforcement system in California that pressed for execution, even though it was clear from medical testimony that the elderly grandmother he allegedly killed actually died of shock when she discovered him breaking and entering her apartment. Left in the dark about the memo despite his being on the MVFHR board, Babbitt said, “My brother Manny’s last words to me were to always take the high road, and to me that means telling the truth and being open and transparent.” He added, regarding the content of the memo, “I think throwing Mumia under the bus is not the way to go in the abolitionist movement. You don’t make bargains with a wolf whose motive is to devour.”

Robert Meeropol, a son of Ethyl and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953, is also a member of the MVFHR board. Currently traveling on behalf of the organization in Asia, he said through a staffer in the US that he did not know about the memo, and added that he still stands “fully in support of a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

Several calls seeking a comment from Cushing or Lowenstein remain unanswered, though a staffer at the MVFHR Boston office, Susanna Sheffer, said, “This is a complicated thing. You need to understand the depth and texture of this.”

Also surprised at the memo was actor Michael Farrell, president of the California abolitionist group Death Penalty Focus. Farrell, a long-time supporter of the call for a new trial for Abu-Jamal, said he had never seen the memo, though it was signed by a member of the DPF board, attorney Elizabeth Zitrin.

Other signers of the memo were Thomas H. “Speedy” Rice of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, Kritsin HoulĂ© of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Juan Matos de Juan of the Puerto Rican Bar Assn.

Bryan, a veteran death penalty defense lawyer who served 10 years on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty--three of them as the organization’s chair--says, “In all my years as an activist opposing the death penalty, I have never heard of any individual or group in that fight singling out anyone as an exception to our campaign to abolish capital punishment. Everyone is treated equally. To single someone out and say they don’t count is chilling. Where do you draw the line? At people accused of killing cops? At people accused of killing old ladies? People accused of killing children? Where does it stop? It’s appalling!”
Heidi Beghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, an organization that has long been in the forefront of the campaign to end the death penalty in the US, and which was not advised of the plan to circulate the memo on behalf of the US Steering Committee to the World Coalition, despite the NLG's being a member of the WCADP, roundly condemned the secret effort to silence Abu-Jamal at the March event.
“Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case is emblematic of the inherent flaws in the capital punishment system,” she said. “That he is castigated by leaders in the abolitionist movement shows precisely what is wrong with the system—it is a system enslaved to the whims and personal biases of police, prosecutor, judge, and jury. While cultivating certain voices of law enforcement may assist in efforts to achieve abolition, it should not be at the expense of exposing a case that embodies some of the most reprehensible actions on the part of the police, the district attorney and the judiciary. The powerful FOP, and their heavy-handed efforts to vilify Abu-Jamal and his supporters, should not be the barometer by which abolitionist leaders gauge their strategic priorities. Members of the abolitionist movement should be working together and not further censoring and ostracizing a death row inmate.”

What makes the American abolitionists’ petulant and manipulative behavior as expressed in the secret memo and their cynical threat to withdraw from the Congress particularly outrageous is that Abu-Jamal’s arrest, trial and appeals process has been, as Beghosian notes, a textbook case of police and prosecutor corruption, malfeasance and abuse. From the beginning, even before his arrest, Abu-Jamal’s case was poisoned by a police lust for vengeance. Although he had been shot through the lung and liver by a bullet fired from Officer Faulkner’s service revolver, and was in danger of dying of internal bleeding that was filling his lungs with blood, Abu-Jamal was left lying in a police wagon for almost half an hour before he was finally delivered to a hospital emergency room, where hospital staff and at least one police officer on the scene observed him being kicked and punched by the officers delivering him.

During the jury selection process at the beginning of his trial, the presiding judge, Albert Sabo, who as a county sheriff’s deputy was an FOP member before he was made a judge, was overheard by a second judge and his court stenographer saying to his own court clerk, as he exited the courtroom through the jurdge’s robing room, “Yeah and I’m gonna help them fry that nigger!”

During the tortuous appeals process, both the state and federal courts have shamelessly bent their rules and violated precedents to deny Abu-Jamal the benefits of precedents that have been routinely accorded other appellants. Third Circuit Appeals Court Judge Thomas Ambro filed a stinging dissent to a decision by his two colleagues, who effectively created new law from the bench in rejecting Abu-Jamal’s well-founded Batson claim of racial bias by the prosecution during jury selection at his trail. Scarcely concealing his outrage, Judge Ambro wrote: "Our Court has previously reached the merits of Batson claims on habeas review in cases where the petitioner did not make a timely objection during jury selection--signaling that our Circuit does not have a federal contemporaneous objection rule--and I see no reason why we should not afford Abu-Jamal the courtesy of our precedents." He added, "Why we pick this case to depart from that reasoning I do not know."

Abu-Jamal himself, interviewed by phone last Friday from his cell at the super-max death row facility SCI-Greene in western Pennsylvania, blasted the attempt to silence him at the Congress, and to ostracize him from the American abolitionist movement. “They are really making deals with the devil,” he said, of claims that the US abolitionist movement was trying to gain the support of the FOP. “My instinct, being from Philadelphia, is that money was passed, though I have no evidence to prove it.” He added, “This secret action is a threat to the entire abolitionist movement. They are saying that because the opposition (to abolition) is so strong, we should not fight. If you have that attitude, why have an abolitionist movement at all?”

Abu-Jamal, whose death penalty was lifted by a federal judge in 2001, only to have the US Supreme Court remand that decision back to the Third Circuit, where it could be reimposed, and who continues, in no small part thanks to pressure from the Pennsylvania FOP, to be held in solitary confinement on death row, where he maintains his innocence, calls the signers of the memo “co-conspirators,” and says they are “naive” to believe they can win over the FOP by abandoning him to his fate.

“If the slavery abolitionists had taken this approach back in 1860,” he says, “and said okay let’s free the slaves, except those uppity ones with prices on their heads like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, we’d still have slavery today.” Abu-Jamal said it appeared that the abolitionist movement appeared to have lost its way, and said that it needed to be broadened to more closely reflect the population of the nation’s death rows. where nearly everyone is poor, and where 53% of the doomed inmates are non-white.

Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USAThe Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation175 Progress DriveDeath Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of ConscienceThe Framing of Mumia Abu-JamalMumia: A Case for Reasonable DoubtMumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt?Live from Death RowAll Things Censored... : Huntingdon And SCI Greene Sessions [Spoken Word]

Here is the text of the secret Memorandum to WCADP.

CONFIDENTIAL MEMORANDUM to ECPM
from the US members of the Steering Committee of the WCADP
Involvement of Mumia Abu-Jamal endangers the US coalition for abolition of the death penalty
ECPM has unilaterally, and over objection, determined to give the Mumia Abu-Jamal case a prominent role in the upcoming 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, including the participation of Mr. Abu-Jamal's lawyers and his direct participation by telephone. The US members of the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty do not agree to this, because it will be counter-productive to our effort to achieve abolition in our country.

The Abu-Jamal case, regardless of its merits, acts as a lightning rod that galvanizes opponents of abolition and neutralizes key constituencies in the cause of abolition. Continuing to give Abu-Jamal focused attention unnecessarily attracts our strongest opponents and alienates coalition partners at a time when we need to build alliances, not foster hatred and enmity.
While Abu-Jamal still attracts some positive attention outside of the United States, it is at a real cost to the US abolition effort. In 1999, the world's largest association of professional law enforcement officers, the Fraternal Order of Police, announced a boycott of organizations and individuals who support Abu-Jamal. Bills have been introduced in both houses of the US federal legislature condemning the naming of streets for Abu-Jamal. The result is that Abu-Jamal, rather than abolition of the death penalty, becomes the issue and the focus of attention. That is dangerously counter-productive to the abolition movement in the US.

The voices of the Innocent, the voices of Victims and the voices of Law Enforcement are the most persuasive factors in changing public opinion and the views of decision-makers (politicians) and opinion leaders (media). Continuing to shine a spotlight on Abu-Jamal, who has had so much public exposure for so many years, threatens to alienate these three most important partnership groups.
The support of law enforcement officials is essential to achieving abolition in the United States. It is essential to the national abolition strategy of US abolition activists and attorneys, that we cultivate the voices of police, prosecutors and law enforcement experts, to support our call for an end to the death penalty. It was key in New Jersey and in New Mexico, it is fundamental to abolition throughout the US, and it will be a primary focus for 2010 and beyond. We have begun to make real progress with police officers and prosecutors speaking out against the death penalty as a failed policy.

«In a national poll released in 2009, the nation's police chiefs ranked the death penalty last in their priorities for effective crime reduction. The officers did not believe the death penalty acted as a deterrent to murder, and they rated it as one of most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars in fighting crime .... "
Death Penalty Information Center, The Death Penalty in 2009: Year End Report, December 18,2009. If the 4th World Congress gives Abu-Jamal and his lawyers the focus and attention proposed by ECPM, the US movement for abolition will be exposed to a serious backlash that will directly damage the delicate alliances we are building with essential groups. As international representatives of the US abolition movement, we cannot agree to the involvement of Abu-Jamal or his lawyers in the World Congress beyond attendance.

For these reasons, providing Abu-Jamal the World Congress stage will require us to consider how to distance our programs in order to protect our vital alliances with our key partners and constituencies. To be effective ad- vocates within the US we must and will continue our strategic approach to abolition with our core allies and our evolving partners. Featuring Mr. Abu-Jamal's case as ECPM has proposed presents an unacceptably high risk of fracturing a developing but still fragile alliance with vitally important constituencies - constituencies that can either help our movement reach the goal of abolition or severely hinder our progress.

Elizabeth Zitrin (DPF), Renny Cushing and Kate Lowenstein (MVFHR), Speedy Rice (NACDL), Kristin Houle (TCADP), Juan Matos de Juan (PRBA)
21 December 2009

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Happy 4th of July: Death Penalty Reform Thinking During The Colonial Period

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, proposed the complete abolition of capital punishment. Rush's opposition to capital punishment influenced the passage of a 1794 law that abolished the death penalty in Pennsylvania except for murder in the first degree.

From Find Law:

The Colonial Period
The abolitionist movement is rooted in the writings of European social theorists Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Bentham, and English Quakers John Bellers and John Howard. However, it was a 1767 essay, On Crimes and Punishment, written by Cesare Beccaria, which principally influenced thinking about punishment throughout the world. Beccaria wrote that there was no justification for the state's taking of a life. The essay gave abolitionists an authoritative voice and renewed energy, one result of which was the abolition of the death penalty in Austria and Tuscany. Scholars in the United States were also affected by Beccaria's work. The first known attempted reforms of the death penalty in the United States occurred when Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to revise Virginia's capital punishment laws, recommending that the death penalty be used only in the case of murder and treason offenses. Jefferson's bill was defeated by one vote.

Other challenges to early capital punishment laws were based on the idea that the death penalty was not a true deterrent. Dr. Benjamin Rush, founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, believed in the brutalization effect and argued that having a death penalty actually increased criminal behavior. Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia attorney general William Bradford supported Rush. Bradford, who would later become the U. S. attorney general, led Pennsylvania to become the first state to consider degrees of murder based on culpability. In 1794, Pennsylvania repealed the death penalty for all offenses except premeditated murder.