"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

California DAs should consider Florida state attorney's approach to death penalty

California's death row, San Quentin prison
California's death row, San Quentin prison
A new Florida State Attorney, Aramis Ayala, made a bold move when she recently announced that capital punishment is "not in the best interest of the community or the best interest of justice," and vowed not to seek the death penalty in future cases.

In taking this courageous stand, Ayala recognizes that the death penalty is a false promise to victims' families and the community. She joins other newly elected prosecutors across the nation who are no longer pushing for a policy that is tremendously costly, arbitrarily doled out and risky in its implementation. The death penalty is deeply flawed, and its use and support continue to dwindle nationwide.

California district attorneys should take a cue from their colleague in Florida and review and reconsider their support of this outdated policy.

Voters deserve to feel that their elected prosecutors actually listen to them. Last year, a majority of voters in 15 California counties supported Proposition 62, which would have repealed the state's death penalty. In Los Angeles, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa, Humboldt, Marin, Mendocino, Monterey, San Francisco, Alpine, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and Yolo counties, California voters supported replacing the death penalty with the sentence of life in prison.

And it's not just the voters. There are many other signs that the death penalty in California should be dismantled once and for all. It's broken beyond repair.

California has not had an execution in more than 10 years because of legal challenges and difficulty acquiring drugs. The state has spent a decade unsuccessfully trying to create a legally sound lethal injection protocol. Corrections officials also have no means to acquire safe or reliable lethal injection drugs because pharmaceutical companies refuse to allow their lifesaving medicine to be used to execute people.

Proposition 66, which falsely promised to resume executions and was narrowly approved by the voters, is tied up in lawsuits because it is so deeply flawed legally and practically.

Fortunately, there is a viable alternative that is already available to prosecutors: life in prison without the possibility of parole. It is a severe punishment and ensures a lifetime behind bars. No one who has been sentenced to life without parole in California has been released, except those who were able to prove their innocence. The nation has evolved past the death penalty, and it's time for prosecutors to follow suit.

California's district attorneys have the power to reject this costly and failed policy. They can and should use their discretion to do what the Florida state attorney did: stop sending new people to our state's overflowing death row and take a stand against this failed government program.

The voters across California have shown that this is a decision they would support. It's time our district attorneys be the leaders we elected them to be.

Source: Sacramento Bee, Ana Zamora, March 22, 2017. Ana Zamora is criminal justice policy director at the ACLU of Northern California.

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Arkansas hunting for volunteers to witness April's 8 executions

A shortage of required citizen witnesses to watch 8 lethal injections over a 10-day period next month prompted the state prison director Tuesday to call on Rotary Club members to volunteer.

Citizen witnesses are there to verify that the individual executions are carried out according to law. A volunteer must be at least 21 years old, an Arkansas resident, have no felony criminal history and have no connection to the inmate or to the victim.

"The last times these were set, we actually did not have enough people volunteer," Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley told Little Rock Rotary Club 99 members. "You seem to be a group that does not have felony backgrounds and are over 21. So if you're interested in serving in that area, in this serious role, just call my office."

The 8 executions are scheduled two at a time beginning April 17 and ending April 27.

Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves said he does not have a current count on the number of citizen witnesses who have signed up for the role. Kelley is making informal inquiries to find more volunteers, he said.

"Depending on the response received, further recruitment may not be necessary," Graves said.

The state's death penalty law, A.C.A. 16-90-502, Section 3, requires that the prison director procure no fewer than six and no more than 12 citizen witnesses for each execution. Kelley must determine that witnesses meet the requirements and that they do not present a security risk.

Graves said that while the legal requirement pertains to each individual execution, "nothing prohibits a witness from service during multiple executions."

Judd Deere, spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said he could not speculate about the impact on the execution schedule if a sufficient number of citizen witnesses can't be found.

As the execution day approaches, "the attorney general will work in consultation with the governor and the Department of Correction director to make sure the law is followed as far as executions being carried out," Deere said.

Graves would not say whether the lack of witnesses would halt or postpone the executions, only that Kelley would "continue her informal recruitment efforts."

Finding volunteers among members of the Little Rock Rotary Club 99 may be difficult, said Bill Booker, acting president of the club.

"What I suspect is that some people might support the death penalty, but when it comes to witnessing something like that, it's a different story," Booker said Tuesday. "It may cause emotional trauma for quite a while. It would be one of the most significant things you'll ever see in your life."

Booker, a funeral director at Roller Funeral Home in Little Rock, said he will not volunteer for the task.

"It's a lot different to be involved after the death has occurred," Booker said, adding that he vividly remembers stopping to help at the scene of a fatal traffic accident 40 years ago and helping a young man as he was dying.

Viewing an execution would be too much for him, he said.

"At this point in my life, I don't know if I'd want to risk being traumatized by it," Booker said. "That doesn't mean that I oppose the death penalty."

Rotarian Charlotte Gadberry said she has no interest in volunteering as a citizen witness.

"I can't imagine she [Kelley] will get a lot of volunteers," Gadberry said. "I don't think I could handle it. I'm not real sure how I feel about the death penalty, but it seems like there should be a better way of treating our fellow man."

Rotarian Karen Fetzer said she would not witness an execution but that Kelley may find some volunteers in the Rotary Club 99 crowd.

"It's just a personal preference for me," Fetzer said. "But there are others in our population who may be up for it."

None of the handful of Arkansas residents interviewed Tuesday by the Democrat-Gazette said they would volunteer for the assignment.

Charles Moore of Camden, who served 2 tours during the Vietnam War, said he's seen enough death in his lifetime.

"I stacked bodies on top of each other in Vietnam," said Moore, a retired disabled veteran who operates the Camden nonprofit children's foundation Planting A Seed. "I don't believe in an eye for an eye."

The subject spurred an argument between Jayme Hickman of Little Rock and her mother, Linda Fitzhugh, of Sheridan as they were sitting on a hill in the River Market District in Little Rock watching Hickman's two children play.

"No," Hickman said, shaking her head. "I don't agree with killing a person. Both families lose in that situation."

Fitzhugh interrupted by directing Hickman's gaze to the 2 children.

"What would you do if they hurt your daughters? They should execute them," Fitzhugh said loudly. "We don't need to be taking care of them with taxpayers' money."

In the end, Fitzhugh admitted that she couldn't bring herself to witness an execution.

Executions have been set for (top row, from left) Kenneth Williams, Jack Jones Jr., Marcell Williams, Bruce Earl Ward, and (bottom row, from left) Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jason McGehee and Ledelle Lee.
Executions have been set for (top row, from left) Kenneth Williams,
Jack Jones Jr., Marcell Williams, Bruce Earl Ward, and (bottom row, from
left) Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jason McGehee and Ledelle Lee.
Betty Fernau of Conway, who has officiated at weddings in prison, suggested a solution to the problem.

"I've heard jury duty can be traumatizing, depending on the case," Fernau said. "It seems like this is part of our judicial system. Finding witnesses should work the same way as calling jurors to a trial.

"If I were called to witness, I would see it as my duty and I would appear. But I would not volunteer."

The pace of the scheduled executions -- prompted by the fact that midazolam, one of the three lethal-injection drugs, will expire at the end of April -- is unprecedented not only for the state, but for the nation.

If the 8 executions are carried out next month, Arkansas will be the 1st state to execute that many inmates in that compressed of a timeline since 1976 -- the year the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.

Arkansas has executed 27 inmates since 1976. The quickest pace for executions was 3 in 1 day on Aug. 3, 1994, and Jan. 8, 1997.

Department of Correction data show that 189 men and 1 woman have been executed in the state since 1915, when executions first began being tracked.

During that time, the most inmates executed in 1 year in Arkansas was 10 in 1926 and 1930. The most executed within close proximity on the calendar was 4 in one day on Feb. 12, 1926, and Nov. 14, 1930. There were 4 executions in the month of October 1959 and the month of May 1960.

Kelley said Tuesday that the close proximity of the 8 execution dates will not affect the department's readiness for the lethal injections.

"The staff will be prepared," Kelley said. "We will be doing practice rounds and having lots of meetings. The protocols are confidential, but we will be prepared. We want everything to go as smoothly as possible for the inmate as well as the staff in the room and the witnesses."

With the execution dates fast approaching, the atmosphere at the Varner Unit's Supermax -- home to 34 male death-row inmates -- is somber, Kelley said.

"I don't think the 8 executions in 10 days has anything to do with it," Kelley said. "I think the fact that an execution is set for any of them would make it somber back there."

No extra security has been assigned to the unit, Kelley said. When the proclamation from Gov. Asa Hutchinson setting the execution dates was released in late February, each of the inmates was seen in private. Prison chaplains have made repeated rounds on death row, helping each inmate determine whether he wants a spiritual adviser and, if so, assisting in appointing one.

"I've been down there since the date was set," Kelley said. "It doesn't have anything to do with the number of inmates being executed. It's just part of the process."

The last inmate to be executed in the state was Eric Nance on Nov. 29, 2005. The state has not put anyone to death since then because of legal challenges to the state's death penalty process and a federal lawsuit opposing the use of the drug midazolam. Death penalty opponents claim that the drug does not induce a complete level of unconsciousness, which allows the inmate to feel pain.

On Monday, attorneys for 9 death row inmates -- including the 8 scheduled to die next month -- filed a petition for a rehearing with the U.S. Supreme Court. The argument is that the 2 executions at a time within the 10-day time frame is "truly extraordinary" and presents substantial new ground for considering the prisoners' case.

"Executing 8 men in ten days is far outside the bounds of what contemporary society finds acceptable," the petition read.

According to the governor's proclamations, the executions are scheduled to be carried out as follows:

-- Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward, April 17.

-- Ledelle Lee and Stacey Johnson, April 20.

-- Marcell Williams and Jack Jones Jr., April 24.

-- Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams, April 27.

Source: Democrat Gazette, March 22, 2017

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Pakistan’s parliament votes to reinstate secret military courts

Karachi: Pakistan’s parliament on Tuesday amended the constitution to reinstate secret military courts that try civilians charged with terrorism offences, something activists have warned will lead to human rights abuses.

The government and Pakistan’s powerful military say the country’s civilian judicial infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with such cases, partly as judges fear becoming victims of revenge attacks by militants.

Military courts were first set up by the parliament in early 2015 in response to an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters on a military-run school that killed 134 children.

Under the system, defendants are not allowed to hire their own lawyers, instead being assigned one by the military. There is no access for the media and the venue and timing of the trials is withheld until a verdict is announced by the military.

The courts have delivered 275 convictions, including 161 death sentences, and carried out 17 executions. These courts do not allow the right to appeal and judges are not required to have law degrees or provide reasons for their verdicts.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office said in January that it would seek to keep them in place after the two-year legal mandate expired.

However, Sharif’s ruling PML-N was not able to extend the courts’ tenure on its own as it does not have the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution, leading to two months of consensus building between the major parties.

“The bill has been adopted today, our suggestions including the parliamentary oversight of the military courts have been included in the bill,” Senator Saeed Gani, from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, told journalists.

Judicial experts have argued that the courts do not address the problem, with a criminal justice system badly in need of reform, and instead act as a stop-gap measure.

“The worrying thing is the conviction rate and the lack of representation for people being tried. It fails every single test of natural justice,” Furkan Ali, a lawyer, said.

Source: Gulf News, Agencies, March 22, 2017

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Belarus: First death sentence in 2017

Belarus prison
"Self-incrimination is used by the prosecution as the main evidence of guilt,
whilst the right to an effective legal defence is systematically violated."
Paris-Minsk. FIDH and its member organisation in Belarus Human Rights Centre "Viasna" denounce the first death sentence in 2017 and regret the Belarusian authorities continue to ignore calls to render Europe a death penalty-free zone.

On 17 March 2017, 32-year-old Aliaksei Mikhalenya was sentenced to death by the Gomel Regional Court of Belarus for two murders committed with particular cruelty. 

Although Aliaksei Mikhalenya has the right to appeal the sentence in Supreme Court in Belarus, the appeal court rarely commutes death sentences and the chances to get the Presidential pardon are illusionary, as revealed in the joint FIDH-HRC report "Death penalty in Belarus: Murder on (Un)Lawful Grounds". 

As the report demonstrates, throughout investigation and trial, self-incrimination is used by the prosecution as the main evidence of guilt, whilst the right to an effective legal defence is systematically violated. 

In general, the application of death penalty in Belarus is accompanied by severe human rights violations at each stage of the judicial proceedings and during detention.

Furthermore, considerable secrecy surrounds the application of death penalty in Belarus. Information concerning the death penalty is withheld from the general public, whilst information on detention conditions for death convicts and execution procedures is not publicly available. 

The exact number of persons convicted to death and executed in Belarus is unknown. 

The families of death convicts are neither informed in advance of the date of the execution, nor immediately thereafter, the body is never handed over to relatives and the location of the burial site is kept secret.

Belarus is the only country in Europe that applies death penalty. 

For the duration of negotiations around EU restrictive measures against Belarusian officials and businesses, the executions had been on hold. However, upon the lifting of sanctions in February 2016, executions resumed and by December 2016 reached their highest number since 2008: four convicts executed in secrecy in 2016.

Being a founding member of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, FIDH and its member organisation HRC "Viasna" urge the EU and other actors to use all leverages at their disposal to put an end to the capital punishment in Belarus.

Source: FIDH, March 21, 2017

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Arkansas legislators vote against bills limiting, ending death penalty, and blocking death penalty for mentally ill

the Arkansas House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol
The Arkansas House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol
Less than a month before the state of Arkansas is to begin executing eight men over an 11-day period, legislators Tuesday rejected bills that would prevent executions of mentally ill defendants and raise the standard for sentencing executions to “beyond any doubt,” while the sponsor agreed to amend a bill outlawing all executions that had little chance of passing.

The House Judiciary Committee voted against House Bill 2170, which would end death penalties for persons with a serious mental illness and also would vacate the death penalty for those already convicted who have a serious mental illness. It failed on a voice vote.

Tom Sullivan, a professor at the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law, said existing law puts medical practitioners in the uncomfortable position of medicating inmates so they can be deemed competent to be executed.

But Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said the bill is so broad that, “I don’t think anyone could ever receive the death penalty if this law were passed.” Scott Ellington, a prosecuting attorney based in Jonesboro, argued against the ability to reduce sentences to life in prison in cases that have already been tried.

After former legislator and congressional candidate Herb Rule argued against the death penalty, Rep. Rebecca Petty, R-Rogers, a member of the committee, referenced the man who kidnapped and murdered her daughter.

“What about those crime victims? What about those families? Do they not deserve grave punishment for grave crimes?” she asked.

Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs, whose daughter died last year, said two mothers on the committee would never see their mothers again. Convicted murderers, meanwhile, would see their loved ones again during prison visitations. The bill failed on a forceful no vote.

The state has not executed anyone since 2005 but has scheduled eight inmates to be put to death, all for capital murder, on the following dates:

• April 17, Don Davis, Bruce Ward
• April 20, Stacey Johnson, Ledelle Lee
• April 24, Marcel Williams, Jack Jones
• April 27, Jason McGehee, Kenneth Williams

Flowers agreed to amend her more expansive bill, House Bill 2103, which would end capital punishment in Arkansas, after legislators noted that it seemed to offer punishments of either life imprisonment or life without parole for capital murder, rather than just life without parole.

Flowers said she would amend the bill before bringing it back before the committee. She later acknowledged in an interview that it had little chance of passing.

“It’s a process, and people need to be made aware and need to be afforded an opportunity for discussion and to think differently about these things,” she said.

Flowers presented a list of witnesses that included Furonda Brasfield, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She told legislators that the death penalty does not deter murders, is expensive, and is twice as likely to be applied to African-Americans than whites in capital murder cases. She also said 156 individuals have been released from death row across the country after their conviction was overturned.

The committee also said no on a voice vote to House Bill 1798 by Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, which would have raised the standard for applying the death penalty in the sentencing phase to “beyond any doubt.” Blake told the committee that the bill would not change the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” in determining guilt but would reduce the possibility of an innocent person being executed. He told legislators his father had told him to measure twice and cut once.

“If we’re going to be cutting someone’s life short, we should be absolutely sure that that person is guilty beyond any doubt of the crime that we’re executing them for,” he said.

But State Prosecutor Coordinator Bob McMann with the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association said “beyond any doubt” is an impossible standard to reach.

Source: TBP, Steve Brawner, March 21, 2017

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Vietnam sentences 9 men to death for drug trafficking

Vietnam (file photo)
Vietnam has sentenced nine drug traffickers to death for smuggling nearly half a tonne (500 kilograms) of heroin into the country from Laos, a local government report said Wednesday.

Nine others were jailed for life over the massive drug bust and "all illegal profits were seized", according to the official newspaper of the Hoa Binh provincial government.

The traffickers smuggled the drugs from neighbouring Laos for resale in China and pocketed $670,000 between 2012 and 2016, according to a separate report by the state-run Vietnam News Agency which gave no further details.

Communist Vietnam has some of the world's toughest anti-drug laws. 

Anyone found guilty of possessing more than 600 grams (21 ounces) of heroin, or more than 20 kilograms of opium, can face the death penalty.

The "Golden Triangle" region covering parts of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar is one of the world's top producers of opium, and heroin and other drugs are often smuggled into Vietnam from the region.

In January 2014 30 drug smugglers were sentenced to death in Vietnam's largest narcotics case, after nearly two tonnes of heroin was seized.

Governments in Southeast Asia's Mekong region have vowed to redouble efforts to tackle the rampant trade in heroin and methamphetamines.

But crackdowns are hindered by the soaring demand for drugs, corrupt officialdom and the long, porous jungle borders between the neighbours.

Source: Agence France-Presse, March 22, 2017

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States debate death penalty issues

Despite a 90 % decline of executions since the height of the death penalty in the 1990s, the death penalty is still a hot topic that is widely debated throughout the U.S. Here are a few of the top death penalty headlines that are currently capturing the nation.

Arkansas


Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the execution dates for 8 inmates in the state, all occurring within an unprecedented 10-day span in April. Starting April 17, the state plans to execute its 1st death row inmate since 2005. The death penalty has been suspended since 2005 due to litigations and difficulties obtaining the drugs necessary for lethal injection, according to The New York Times.

During a press conference Feb. 28, Hutchinson said that the close scheduling of the executions was "not my choice."

"If we do not set the execution dates, that will not trigger a review and we'll never bring finality to this long and arduous process that really is so difficult on the victims and their families," he said.

It is believed that the urgency of executions is due to the state's dwindling supply of viable execution drugs. The New York Times reports that the state's supply of midazolam expires at the end of April.

Furonda Brasfield, a lawyer and executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, agrees with the assessment.

"Why else would you take something that was going to take place over the course of 4 months and move it into the state of 10 days? The only logical conclusion is that they know the midazolam is going to expire at the end of April and they want to get as many executions done as they can before then," Brasfield told NCR.

Midazolam


Oral arguments began March 7 in Ohio to discuss the constitutionality of midazolam in the state's lethal injection protocol. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati heard arguments from attorneys representing three inmates who are currently on Ohio's death row.

On Jan. 26, Magistrate Michael Merz from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio issued a stay of execution for the state's 3 upcoming executions based on an evidentiary hearing against the use of midazolam. Attorneys argued on behalf of the inmates that the drug violates their Eighth Amendment right against "cruel and unusual punishment."

The ruling comes 3 years after the execution of Dennis McGuire Jan. 16, 2014, which utilized midazolam. During the Jan. 26 evidentiary hearing, Alan Johnson, a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, testified about McGuire's execution, saying that McGuire "began coughing, gasping, choking in a way that I had not seen before at any execution. And I remember it because I relived it several times. Frankly, that went on for 12 to 13 minutes."

Midazolam was central to another court case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 2015, the court ruled 5-4 against inmate Richard Glossip's assertion that use of the drug was unconstitutional. Glossip is still sitting on Oklahoma's death row.

Supreme Court


Although the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in 2015 that midazolam did not violate inmates' Eighth Amendment right against "cruel and unusual punishment," the drug keeps popping up in the nation's highest court.

The Supreme Court recently refused to hear a case pertaining to the stay of execution of Thomas Arthur in Alabama. In the case, Arthur argued that a firing squad would be more constitutional than Alabama's lethal injection protocol, which includes midazolam.

In an 18-page dissent issued on Feb. 21, Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote that midazolam as a method of execution "may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet."

"Like a hangman's poorly tied noose or a malfunctioning electric chair, midazolam might render our latest method of execution too much for our conscience - and the Constitution - to bear," she wrote.

Justice Stephen Breyer joined Sotomayor in her dissent. 2 weeks later, Breyer wrote his own dissent in the case of Rolando Ruiz v. Texas. The Supreme Court refused to grant Ruiz an 11th hour stay of execution and he was subsequently executed March 7. Ruiz's appeal to the courts was also based on his Eighth Amendment right but on the premise that he has spent 22 years on death row, predominantly in solitary confinement.

"If extended solitary confinement alone raises serious constitutional questions, then 20 years of solitary confinement, all the while under threat of execution, must raise similar questions, and to a rare degree, and with particular intensity," Breyer wrote in his dissent.

The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to review and intervene in another case out of Texas. Christopher Young argued that he deserved a new trial after a potential jury member was removed from his capital punishment case based on their religious affiliation and involvement in a faith ministry. Over 500 faith leaders representing 44 states and 20 different faith traditions signed a letter stating their opposition to the removal of the potential juror.

However, in a glimmer of hope for advocates against the death penalty, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in favor of Duane Buck, sending his case back to the Texas courts to reconsider his death sentence. Buck argued that he was given the death sentence in part because of a testimony that said blacks are more likely than whites to commit crimes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Chief Justice John Roberts told the courtroom that "our laws punish people for what they do, not for who they are."

Montana


Every year since 1999, Montana legislators have considered bills to ban the death penalty.

This year's hopes ended March 1 after the bill was unable to make it out of the state's House.

"We probably had the votes to pass HB 366 out of the House but just didn't have a workable path to successfully get it out of the House Judiciary Committee after they tabled the bill" on a 9-10 vote Feb. 10, wrote Matthew Brower, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, in an email to NCR.

"The ball is moving in the right direction and we and the Montana Abolition Coalition are going to keep working this issue to make sure death penalty abolition becomes a reality in Montana," Brower wrote. "So we look forward to 2019 and begin laying the groundwork for those efforts beginning now."


Slain Florida priest


Catholic bishops from Georgia and Florida are speaking out on behalf of slain priest Fr. Rene Robert of the diocese of St. Augustine, Fla. In a Jan. 31 press conference outside a Georgia courthouse, Bishop Felipe Estevez of St. Augustine, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah, Ga., called for the state of Georgia to drop the death penalty, per Robert's request, in the case against Robert's murderer.

In 1995, Robert signed and had notarized a "Declaration of Life" where he stated that "should he die as a result of a violent crime, he did not want the individual or individuals found guilty of homicide for his killing to be subject to, or put in jeopardy of, the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime or how much he may have suffered," according to Catholic News Service.

On April 18, 2016, Robert was found murdered in Georgia. Later, Steven J. Murray admitted in interviews that he was responsible for the death. Murray knew Robert - Robert had befriended Murray as part of his prison ministry.

"We have great respect for the legal system and we believe Murray deserves punishment for the brutal murder, but the sentence of death only perpetuates the cycle of violence," Estevez said at a news conference. "It is unnecessary and denies the dignity of all persons."

Ashley Wright, who at the time was the Augusta-Richmond County district attorney, said she would seek the death penalty against Murray. Wright has recently been named a Superior Court judge.

After the news conference, the bishops talked privately to Hank Syms, acting district attorney, and Estevez gave him petitions with 7,400 signatures. Neither Syms nor Wright would comment on the specifics of the case but according to NBC News, Wright said the district attorney "is supposed to be impervious to public opinion or public outcry about how a case should be handled."

Source: ncronline.org, March 21, 2017

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Arkansas' Reckless Plan to Execute 8 Men in 10 Days Could End in State-Sanctioned Torture Before Death

Midazolam
Between April 17 and 27, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson plans on doing what should be inconceivable: executing 8 prisoners in 10 days.

After killing no prisoners in the last 12 years, the state is rushing to execute these 8 men before the controversial execution drug it needs to carry them out expires on April 30. The drug, Midazolam, has been directly linked to past botched executions, but that hasn't stopped Hutchinson from planning a killing spree in a few weeks. 

By racing to use a drug known to play a part in botched executions, the governor risks debasing the state of Arkansas, its citizens, and the very American traditions of justice by torturing prisoners to death.

In a hospital setting, Midazolam is prescribed by doctors to calm patients' nerves or act as a sedative for minor procedures. It is not used to put patients under for surgery, let alone anesthetize prisoners before killing them. And when Midazolam is combined with the 2 other drugs used during the execution - vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride - it produces unspeakable pain before death.

We know this because it's happened before.

The most recent Midazolam botch occurred during Alabama's December execution of Ronald Bert Smith. His execution took 34 minutes, during which time Smith heaved and coughed for 13 minutes. His attorneys reported that he remained conscious, responding to corrections officials, well into the execution.

In 2014, the state of Ohio relied on Midazolam with the same horrific results. That same year, a similar nightmare transpired over the course of 2 long hours after Arizona used 15 repeated doses to execute Joseph Wood before he finally stopped coughing and, gulping once, died. These botches together have led an Ohio judge to halt future executions using Midazolam, while Florida and Arizona have also abandoned it.

Beyond the cruelty of using a defective drug to kill someone, Arkansas is upping the probability of something going terribly wrong by ratcheting up the pace of its executions. Double and triple executions are rare in the history of the U.S. death penalty and haven't occurred in close to 20 years. 

When they did happen, it was in a bygone era when states were annually executing 3 and 4 times as many people as they do today. Even then, no state attempted, as Arkansas plans for this April, 4 double executions in 10 days.

The last state to attempt a double execution was Oklahoma, when, also using Midazolam, it botched the execution of Clayton Lockett. The prison warden himself called it a "bloody mess." 

The scene in Lockett's execution chamber was chaos. A doctor was squirted with Lockett's blood as it spurted from a vein. The personnel were confused and distressed. Lockett did not die until 43 minutes later, after the execution had been halted and the shades drawn on the adjacent viewing room. 

Meanwhile, Charles Warner waited to die in the state's 2nd planned execution of the night. After the botch of Lockett's execution, Warner's was cancelled, and the state announced that it would no longer schedule more than 1 execution in a 7-day period.

Multiple dates, set so closely together, increase the risk of human error and resulting torture and injustice. Arkansas's previous botched executions - of Ricky Ray Rector in 1992 and Christina Marie Riggs in 2000, like Lockett's botch - each involved failure to place execution lines properly in the veins. 

This history highlights the role in executions of fallible human beings, who can't help but be affected by the pace and horror of multiple executions. As Sen. John McCain said of Joseph Wood's botched Midazolam execution, "The lethal injection needs to be an indeed lethal injection and not the bollocks-upped situation that just prevailed. That's torture."

History risks repeating itself when we don't heed its lessons. We don't need another state-sanctioned killing to be botched by the use of Midazolam or by the reckless clip of Gov. Hutchinson's scheduled killings. Assembly line justice - artificially paced to an expiring controversial drug choice - can only end in easily avoidable disaster.

Source: aclu.org, ACLU Capital Punishment Project, Brian Stull, March 21, 2017

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Severe mental illness and the death penalty

Kentucky mentally ill inmate by Jenn Ackerman
Kentucky mentally ill inmate by Jenn Ackerman
Over the course of our state’s history, people with severe mental illnesses have faced serious consequences in the criminal justice system. All too often, these individuals faced capital punishment, a sentence that frequently extends an already emotionally difficult ordeal for family members, involves years of litigation and occurs at high financial cost to taxpayers.

The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities and for juveniles — because medical research shows those individuals do not have the same mental capacity as fully-functioning adults. People experiencing symptoms of severe mental illnesses are clearly in the same category and should be treated the same way.

Assessing capital punishment in these unique and infrequent cases disregards the growing scientific consensus that severe mental illness can significantly impair one’s ability to make rational decisions, understand the consequences of one’s actions and control one’s impulses. The diagnosis process is lengthy, detailed and accurate. The capital punishment approach sweeps aside our collective responsibility to provide adequate care options for persons with mental health disabilities.

In January, the Texas House Select Committee on Mental Health released its interim report and recommendations. The report acknowledged “an estimated 30 percent of inmates have one or more serious mental illnesses.” To address the issue of individuals with serious mental illness, one must broach the complex relationships between the mental health community and the criminal justice system.

It is clear that a lack of access to treatment can directly result in costly, non-therapeutic criminal justice system involvement. Individuals who are guilty should be held accountable for their actions, but we propose that individuals who qualify for the severe mental illness exemption from the death penalty should be subject to criminal prosecution, and if convicted, should serve terms of life without parole.

Our proposed exemption would not apply to a broad range of individuals. Only those with medical diagnoses such as schizophrenia, schizo-effective disorder, paranoia and other psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression should be considered. It would apply on a case-by-case basis; a judge or jury would consider all of the evidence to determine whether a person had a severe mental illness with active symptoms at the time of the crime.

When individuals with severe mental illnesses enter the criminal justice system and are not appropriately diverted to treatment, the state runs the risk of executing innocent people. Individuals with severe mental illnesses run a higher risk of being executed, typically after bending to police pressure, firing their counsel and representing themselves or refusing to help with their own defense. A 2012 study found that approximately 70 percent of wrongfully convicted defendants with mental illness confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. This compares to only 10 percent of defendants without a mental illness.

Mental illness is not a choice. We as a society have already answered the question of how to address persons with severe mental disabilities as it relates to the criminal justice system. Our challenge nationally, and as a state, is to ensure this approach is now reflected in all aspects of the law.

Source: TribTalk, Toni Rose and Greg Hansch, March 20, 2017. Toni Rose is a State representative, District 110, Texas, Greg Hansch is Public Policy Director, NAMI Texas.

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European Commission chief warns Turkey death penalty is 'red line' issue

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has warned Turkey that any return of the death penalty would be a "red line" in the country's stalled EU membership bid.

"If the death penalty is reintroduced in Turkey, that would lead to the end of negotiations," he told Sunday's edition of Germany's Bild newspaper, calling it a "red line".

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday he expected parliament to approve the restoration of capital punishment after next month's referendum on controversial constitutional changes to expand his powers.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel went even further, saying in an interview with Der Spiegel: "We are farther away than ever from Turkey's accession to the EU."

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 and the European Union has repeatedly made clear that any move to restore it would scupper its membership bid.

However Turkish ministers say they need to respond to popular demand for the return of capital punishment to deal with the ringleaders of an attempted coup in July.

"What Hans and George say is not important for me," Mr Erdogan said.

What the people say, what the law says, that's what is important for us."

Turkey and Europe are locked in a diplomatic crisis after Germany and the Netherlands blocked Turkish ministers from campaigning for a 'yes' vote in the 16 April referendum, which opponents fear will create 1-man rule.

In response, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu threatened to "blow the mind" of Europe by sending 15,000 refugees a month to EU territory, which would endanger a year-old migrant deal between Turkey and the EU to reduce the flow of migrants.

"Turkey will not back out of the accord, even if Erdogan has told me several times he wanted to," Mr Juncker said.

Turkey has no interest in ceding "control" of its borders to "human traffickers and criminals".

Source: rte.ie, March 20, 2017


Erdogan vows to reinstate death penalty as referendum opponents face 'attacks and imprisonment


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
In the build up to the referendum, the Turkish President promised he will introduce the death penalty in a campaign that has caused a diplomatic furore

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Saturday that he will reinstate capital punishment "without hesitation", ahead of the referendum on 16 April that could lead to a radical extension of his powers.

Speaking at a televised rally in Canakkale, the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) promised that he would sign a bill on the death penalty, stating: "I believe, God willing, that after the 16 April vote, parliament will do the necessary concerning your demands for capital punishment".

His controversial comments come over a decade after Turkey completely abolished the death penalty in its efforts to join the European Union.

This isn't the first time the premier has introduced talks about reinstating capital punishment. He raised the idea after last year's failed coup of 15 July, suggesting it would bring justice to the families of the victims.

As the referendum approaches, Erdogan has been leading an inflammatory, anti-western campaign that saw him pushing a political narrative that depicts Turkey as a great nation that is being undermined by an imperialist Europe.

He attacked German chancellor Angela Merkel again on Sunday, accusing her of using "Nazi measures", according to Agence France-Presse. In a televised speech, he said: "You are right now employing Nazi measures," using the informal 'you' in Turkish in what has become an intense diplomatic dispute. He previously launched a scathing attack on Germany for stopping rallies in advance of the constitutional referendum, in which he repeatedly referred to Germans as 'Nazis'.

He erroneously labelled the Dutch as "Nazi remnants" in a desperate bid to appeal to voters in the Turkish diaspora. The Netherlands is home to approximately 397,471 people of Turkish origin, who make up 2.4 % of the total population. Most of them hold dual nationality and are therefore eligible to vote in the Turkish referendum.

A 'yes' in the referendum would rewrite the constitution and transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, giving Erdogan unprecedented control to appoint ministers, pick senior judges, and dismiss parliament. Erdogan's campaign has understandably been met with criticism, with Turkey's main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, urging Turks to vote no in the referendum, saying its approval would undermine democracy.

European institutions have also expressed concerns over the campaign. A Council of Europe inquiry noted there is an "excessive concentration of powers in one office."

According to the Associated Press, figures opposing the referendum in Turkey have faced threats, violence, arbitrary detentions, a lack of TV airtime and even sabotage in the campaign.

The AKP leader's shift towards an autocratic government has led to accusations of being 'dictatorial' by critics.

Erdogan came under fire in January after using Hitler's government as an example of an effective presidential system. He defended his argument that putting all political power in the hands of the presidency would be a success, by saying "there are already examples in the world [...] you can see it when you look at Hitler's Germany. There are later examples in various other countries."

The rocky campaign and talks of introducing a death penalty will undoubtedly cause long-term damage for ties between Turkey and European countries, and could end Ankara's efforts to join the EU.

Source: independent.co.uk, March 20, 2017

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Trump and Republicans face a fresh test to shape Supreme Court

Judge Neil Gorsuch
Judge Neil Gorsuch
When Judge Neil Gorsuch arrives on Capitol Hill on Monday morning to begin his confirmation hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court, he will give President Trump his first chance to make a lasting imprint on the federal judiciary — and Republicans a fresh test to work their will now that they control all of Washington’s levers of power.

Gorsuch, a federal appeals court judge from Colorado, was promoted by conservative legal activists because of his sterling credentials, a decade of right-of-center rulings and his allegiance to the same brand of constitutional interpretation employed by the late justice he would replace, Antonin Scalia.

All of that also sets up a stark dilemma for Senate Democrats. Monday brings their newest opportunity since the confirmation hearings of Trump’s Cabinet to take a stand against a young administration that has horrified liberal Americans with efforts to strip away provisions of the Affordable Care Act, impose an entry ban on some immigrants and deeply cut federal agencies’ budgets.

The left also remains angry about a Supreme Court seat that has been vacant since Scalia died 13 months ago, after which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decided to block a hearing for President Barack Obama’s selection for the seat, Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Gorsuch seemed to forecast what might await him from Democrats in a 2002 column he wrote lamenting the state of the Supreme Court nomination process: “When a favored candidate is voted down for lack of sufficient political sympathy to those in control, grudges are held for years, and retaliation is guaranteed.”

Yet Democrats are divided about how to take on a genial jurist who has made few waves in the weeks since Trump nominated him and he began meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Gorsuch “is a bit of a puzzle,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re going to try to put those pieces together so that the puzzle is complete and we have an understanding of what kind of a fifth vote will be going on the court.”

Asked about what more she hopes to learn about Gorsuch’s stances, Feinstein said: “Voting rights. Right to choose. Guns. Corporate dollars in elections. Worker safety. Ability of federal agencies to regulate. All of the environmental issues — water, air.”

Senators and their staffs are also examining Gorsuch’s role as a high-ranking official in the Justice Department at the time the George W. Bush administration was dealing with Guantanamo Bay detainees, reports of torture and anti-terrorism policies.

A new trove of materials released this weekend shows Gorsuch playing a central role in coordinating legal and legislative strategy, but portraying himself as reconciling the many opinions of those in the administration rather than driving policy.

“I am but the scrivener looking for language that might please everybody,” he wrote in one email.

Four days of hearings are set to begin Monday, when Gorsuch will sit and listen for several hours as members of the Judiciary Committee read opening statements. He is poised to deliver his opening statement on Monday afternoon, giving senators and the nation an early indication of how he might serve on the court.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Gorsuch is set to face at least 50 minutes of questioning by each member of the panel. The proceedings are expected to conclude Thursday with a panel of witnesses speaking for or against Gorsuch.

➤ Click here to read the full article

Source: The Washington Post, Ed O'Keefe and Robert Barnes, March 19, 2017

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Philippine president swears at European MPs over death penalty criticism

President Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has berated the European parliament for passing a resolution condemning his plans to revive the death penalty for drug convicts.

“I’ll talk in English,” he said, speaking to Filipino expatriates on a two-day state visit to Myanmar. “Do not impose your culture or your belief in what would be a government in this planet. Do not impose on other countries, especially us.

“Why don’t you mind your own business? Why do you have to fuck with us, goddamn it?”

Since taking office in July last year, Duterte, nicknamed “the Punisher” for his lethal approach to policing, has led a bloody drugs war that has killed more than 7,000 people. Many of the dead are suspected low-level dealers and alleged drug addicts.

Loved by many in the Philippines for his confrontational style, the president has lashed out at his critics, labelling the United Nations “stupid” and former US president Barack Obama a “son of a whore”. He also announced he personally killed criminals, including throwing one suspect to his death from a helicopter.

The Philippine house of representatives approved a version of the death penalty bill this month that will allow the execution of drug convicts by hanging, firing squad, or lethal injection. The draft will now go to the senate.

A resolution delivered by European Union lawmakers last week said it was “deeply alarmed” that the Philippines was planning to reintroduce the death penalty and that it considers capital punishment to be “cruel and inhuman ... which fails to act as a deterrent to criminal behaviour.”

The text also called for the release of Duterte’s highest-profile critic, Senator Leila de Lima, who was arrested last month on drug trafficking charges that the EU said “are almost entirely fabricated”.

The body also condemned Duterte’s open threats to kill human rights defenders, “credible reports” that Philippine polices falsify evidence to justify extrajudicial killings, and plans to lower the age of criminal responsibility to nine years old.

Following the killing of a South Korean businessman by rogue officers, Duterte halted all police operations in his anti-drug campaign. However, he has asked the army to continue the crackdown on crime.

More than two-thirds of all countries in the world have abolished the death penalty.

The Philippines was one of the first states in southeast Asia to ban executions although Duterte said in his speech on Sunday that the punishment was a “favourite” in the region.

“Because there is a death penalty in Indonesia, Malaysia, and I’m trying to revive it,” he said.

Source: The Guardian, Oliver Holmes, March 20, 2017

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