Death penalty debate heats up

Asheville and Georgia cases ignite death penalty debate:
One execution, two exonerations raise questions of justice

ASHEVILLE — Fifteen hours stood between the execution of Troy Davis amid questions over his true guilt and the sunny afternoon two Asheville men exonerated in another murder case walked free.

But the cases stand out for reasons other than just timing. Though each held significant differences from the other, they both have reignited debate over the death penalty and imperfections within our justice system.

Davis, convicted of killing an off-duty police officer in Georgia in 1989, was given a trial.

Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a 2000 slaying under threats from investigators and prosecutors and even their own attorneys and family, who wanted to spare them life in prison or the possibility of a death sentence.

Davis gained national attention, with even the pope questioning his guilt.

The case of Kagonyera and Wilcoxson generated passing interest before they were freed Thursday.

But where Davis had to work within the court system, Kagonyera and Wilcoxson had the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Its success with their case will give new momentum to calls for similar justice system checks in other states.

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New York Times: Opinion: Broken Beyond Repair

Op-ed columnist Bob Herbert

“You can only hope that you will be as sharp and intellectually focused as former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens when you’re 90 years old.

In a provocative essay in The New York Review of Books, the former justice, who once supported the death penalty, offers some welcome insight into why he now opposes this ultimate criminal sanction and believes it to be unconstitutional.

As Adam Liptak noted in The Times on Sunday, Justice Stevens had once thought the death penalty could be administered rationally and fairly but has come to the conclusion “that personnel changes on the court, coupled with ‘regrettable judicial activism,’ had created a system of capital punishment that is shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.”

The egregious problems identified by Justice Stevens (and other prominent Americans who have changed their minds in recent years about capital punishment) have always been the case. The awful evidence has always been right there for all to see, but mostly it has been ignored. The death penalty in the United States has never been anything but an abomination — a grotesque, uncivilized, overwhelmingly racist affront to the very idea of justice.

Police and prosecutorial misconduct have been rampant, with evidence of innocence deliberately withheld from defendants being prominent among the abuses. Juries have systematically been shaped — rigged — to heighten the chances of conviction, and thus imposition of the ultimate punishment.

Prosecutors and judges in death penalty cases have been overwhelmingly white and male and their behavior has often — not always, but shockingly often — been unfair, bigoted and cruel. The Death Penalty Information Center has reams of meticulously documented horror stories.

Innocents have undoubtedly been executed. Executions have been upheld in cases in which defense lawyers slept through crucial proceedings. Alcoholic, drug-addicted and incompetent lawyers — as well as lawyers who had been suspended or otherwise disciplined for misconduct — have been assigned to indigent defendants. And it has always been the case that the death penalty machinery is fired up far more often when the victims are white.

I remember reporting on a study several years ago by the Texas Defender Service, which represented indigent death row inmates. It mentioned a Dallas defense lawyer, who, reminiscing in 2000, said: “At one point, with a black-on-black murder, you could get it dismissed if the defendant would pay funeral expenses.” A judge, looking back on his days as a prosecutor in the 1950s, recalled being told by an angry boss: “If you ever put another nigger on a jury, you’re fired.”

Prosecutors cleaned up their language somewhat over the years, but the discrimination has persisted, along with the pernicious idea that white lives are inherently more valuable than black ones. Patricia Lemay, a white juror in a Georgia death penalty case that resulted in an execution, told me in an interview in 2002 that she had been nauseated by the vile racial comments made by other jurors during the deliberations.

Justice Harry Blackmun was 85 years old and near the end of his tenure on the Supreme Court when he declared in 1994 that he could no longer support the imposition of the death penalty. “The problem,” he said, “is that the inevitability of factual, legal and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.”

Justice Blackmun vowed that he would no longer participate in a system “fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake.”

In 1990, Justice Thurgood Marshall asserted: “When in Gregg v. Georgia the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to capital punishment, this endorsement was premised on the promise that capital punishment would be administered with fairness and justice. Instead, the promise has become a cruel and empty mockery.”

Justices Blackmun and Marshall are gone, but the death penalty is still with us. It is still an abomination. Illinois has tried mightily to deal with a system of capital punishment that had, as The Chicago Tribune described it, “one of the worst records of wrongful capital convictions in the country.”

The sentences of 167 condemned inmates were commuted in 2003. Four others were pardoned and a moratorium on the death penalty has been in effect since 2000. But prosecutors continue mindlessly to seek the death penalty. And the system for trying murder cases remains a mess. As The Tribune wrote in an editorial just last week:

“Lawmakers still haven’t taken adequate steps to ensure that the death penalty is applied evenly across the state, or to guard against wrongful convictions based on errant identifications of witnesses or mistakes at forensic labs. False confessions and prosecutorial missteps are still alarmingly common.”

In the paper’s view, “Illinois must abolish the death penalty.”

And so must the United States.”

Article here: Broken Beyond Repair

The New York Times weighs in

Two years ago, when a splintered Supreme Court approved lethal injection as a means of execution in Baze v. Rees, Justice John Paul Stevens made a prophecy. Instead of ending the controversy, he said, the ruling would raise questions “about the justification for the death penalty itself.” Since then, evidence has continued to mount, showing the huge injustice of the death penalty — and the particular barbarism of this form of execution.

To read the rest, click here.

The Daily Reflector: Public defenders ensure accused don’t stand alone

This is an extremely informative article that addresses common misconceptions of what a “public defender” is.

“The public defender has 3,394 pending cases, and an additional 2,603 cases have private attorneys appointed by the court from outside the public defender’s office, Kemp said. Each defender works about 100 cases at a time, he said.

“We’ve found, through trial and error, that about 100 cases is a manageable number, but a lot depends on the cases,” Kemp said. “Seven murder cases is like handling 50 to 100 smaller cases. But we don’t like to measure and weigh cases that way, asking what one case is worth against another.”

«Public defenders ensure accused don’t stand alone

Star News: Death row pair to get new chance

After years of appeals and new evidence brought to trial two North Carolina death row inmates are no longer on death row.  Instead, Kyle Berry and Jamey Cheek are receiving life sentences for their respected first-degree murders.  Failure to disclose all information to the juries that could have altered their determination of death were the factors behind the re-sentencing.

In the article Wilmington attorney Helen Hinn, who represents Cheek, is highly outspoken against the death penalty.  She claims that  “If they had given them life in prison, there wouldn’t be these years of appeals.”  She then goes on to state that future juries will hesitate in declaring capital punishment for a defendant because of the likelihood it will be overturned.  Without the death penalty years of appeals that clog up court dockets can be avoided.

“I’m very opposed to the death penalty. It serves no purpose. It’s not a deterrent. Nobody who commits a murder is going to stand there and say … ‘I might get the death penalty, therefore I won’t shoot him.’ The state should do away with it entirely.” -Wilmington attorney Helen Hinn

Further information available in the article…

«Death row pair to get new chance

Georgia fails to fund defense

Jamie Weiss

by Adam Liptak/The New York Times

When the State of Georgia ran out of money to pay the lawyers for a man facing the death penalty, the prosecutor, of all people, had an idea. He asked the judge to appoint two overworked public defenders instead, identifying them by name.

The judge went along. The Georgia Supreme Court, by a 4-to-3 vote, endorsed the arrangement in March, saying the defendant, Jamie R. Weis, should have accepted the new lawyers to help solve the state’s budget impasse.

The adversary system does not ordinarily let prosecutors pick their opponents. Indeed, most states do not allow established relationships between lawyers and their clients to be interrupted for any but the most exceptional reasons.

Read the rest here.