They Messed with Texas September 10, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Texas.
Tags: capital punishment, Criminal Justice, death penalty, death row, dna evidence, Election 2012, glenn greenwald, innocence project, peter catapano, presidential debates, republicans, rick perry, sept. 11, texas, texas executions, wrongful convictions
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A funny thing happened at the Republican debate at the Reagan
Library in California on Wednesday night, when the evening’s co-moderator Brian
Williams asked a question of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. (Not funny ha-ha, funny
For the text oriented among us, here’s what transpired.
WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234
death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you…
Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those
might have been innocent?
PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has
a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits
the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they
go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United
States, if that’s required.
But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our
children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you
kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of
Texas, and that is, you will be executed.
WILLIAMS: What do you make of…
What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the
execution of 234 people drew applause?
PERRY: I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly,
in the vast majority of — of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you
have committed heinous crimes against our citizens — and it’s a state-by-state
issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they
made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our
citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.
For some — in this case, opponents of the death penalty — this was sort of a
double whiplash moment, a gasp within a gasp that may have been more confusing
than mobilizing. Because which was more disturbing (or heartening, depending on
your political view)? Perry’s unbowed defense of the “thoughtful” trial process
in Texas and the clear expression of his untroubled mind in the face of possible
moral doubt and complexity (i.e., Have I facilitated the death of an innocent
human?)? Or the audience applause that bracketed the exchange, the rousing
audience cheers for an aggressively applied death penalty? In California, mind
you, not Texas.
Let’s look at the applause, the “execution cheer,” if you will. Because any
number of analysts might have expected Perry to say what he said, but the cheer
was a surprise — a welcome sort for some, but unwelcome for others.
This is the digital age, so let’s begin with an immediate outburst from
Andrew Sullivan, who during his live blogging of the debate, wrote:
9.48 pm. A spontaneous round of applause for executing people! And Perry
shows no remorse, not even a tiny smidgen of reflection, especially when we know
for certain that he signed the death warrant for an innocent man. Here’s why I
find it impossible to be a Republican: any crowd that instantly cheers the
execution of 234 individuals is a crowd I want to flee, not join. This is the
crowd that believes in torture and executions. Can you imagine the torture that
Perry would authorize? Thank God he’s doing so poorly tonight.
The next morning, Sullivan’s former colleague, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi
Coates, seemed somewhat less rattled, though hardly
cheerier. “Apparently people were shocked by the applause here,” he wrote.
“The only thing that shocked me was that they didn’t form a rumba line. It’s a
Republican debate. And it’s America.” He continued:
Perry’s right — most people support the death penalty. It’s the job of those
of us who oppose the death penalty to change that.
It’s worth remembering that no Democratic nominee for the presidency in some
twenty years, has been against the death penalty. This is still the country
where we took kids to see men lynched, and then posed for photos.
We are a lot of things. This is one of them.
Glenn Greenwald at Salon found it unwelcome, too. Actually he found it “creepy
and disgusting.” (Greenwald, like Perry, is direct.). In a link-laden
broadside, he wrote:
[I]t’s hardly surprising for a country which long considered public hangings
a form of entertainment and in which support for the death penalty is mandated
orthodoxy for national politicians in both parties. Still, even for those who
believe in the death penalty, it should be a very somber and sober affair for
the state, with regimented premeditation, to end the life of a human being no
matter the crimes committed. Wildly cheering the execution of human beings as
though one’s favorite football team just scored a touchdown is primitive,
twisted and base.
All of that would be true even if the death penalty were perfectly applied
and only clearly guilty people were killed. But in the U.S., the exact opposite
is true; see here to read about (and act to stop) a horrific though typical
example of a very likely innocent person about to be executed by the State
of Georgia. That Perry in particular likely enabled the execution of an innocent man — as well as
numerous other highly disturbing killings, of the young and
mentally infirm — makes the cheering all the more repellent. That the death
penalty in America has long been plagued by a serious racial bias makes it worse
still. That this death-cheering comes from a party that relentlessly touts
itself as ”pro-life” and derides the other as The Party of Death — and loves to
condemn Islam (in contrast to its war-loving self) as a death-glorifying cult — only adds a layer of dark
That whole “perfectly applied” thing — the goal of which requires the person
being put to death to actually be guilty — also troubled others. Marie Diamond
at Think Progress Justice undertakes
a thorough debunking of the idea that everyone executed in Texas in the past
decade or so was guilty:
[D]uring Perry’s tenure as governor, DNA evidence has exonerated at least
41 people convicted in Texas, Scott Horton writes in Harper’s. According to
Project, “more people have been freed through DNA testing in Texas than in
any other state in the country, and these exonerations have revealed deep flaws
in the state’s criminal justice system.” Some 85
percent of wrongful convictions in Texas, or 35
of the 41 cases, are due to mistaken eyewitness identifications.
Those exonerations include Cornelius Dupree, who had already spent 30 years in
prison for rape, robbery, and abduction when DNA evidence proved
unequivocally that he was not the man who had committed those crime. Tim
Cole, the brother of Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis (D), was posthumously pardoned
a decade after he died in prison when DNA evidence proved his innocence. The
total failure of the Texas courts to protect these innocent individuals reveal a
system plagued by racial injustices, procedural flaws, and
a clemency review process that’s nothing but a rubber stamp on executions.
Leading the country in wrongful convictions probably should give Perry a
moment’s pause about the reliability of a criminal justice process he described
last night as “thoughtful.” …
And he may well have already executed an innocent man. The case of Cameron
Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson deaths of his three
daughters and maintained his innocence until his dying day, will likely continue to haunt
Perry throughout the campaign. Several scientists and forensics experts have
questioned the evidence that led to Willingham’s conviction, but Perry “squashed”
an official probe into his execution.
(Here is an interactive graphic of executions under Governor Perry, from the Texas Tribune.)
Taking another tack, political animal Steve Benen at Washington Monthly notes
the apparent inconsistency in Perry’s much-discussed attitude towards
[W]e’re learning quite a bit about how Rick Perry thinks. Scientists tell
him, after rigorous, peer-reviewed, international research that global warming
is real, and Perry responds, “I don’t care.” A deeply flawed judicial process
puts potentially-innocent Americans on death row, and Perry responds, “Let’s get
the killin’ started.”
The governor balks when presented with evidence on evolution, abstinence
education, and climate change, but embraces without question the notion that
everyone he’s killed in Texas was 100 percent guilty. The scientific process, he
apparently believes, is unreliable, while the state criminal justice system is
Intellectually, morally, and politically, this isn’t just wrong; it’s scary.
The fact that Republicans in the audience found this worthy of hearty applause
points to a party that’s bankrupt in more ways than one.
Of course, as Coates pointed out, this is America, and thus Perry’s stance
was praised by some as proof (not scientific) that the governor was truly
sympatico with the average American death penalty supporter.
An interesting opinion of this sort was aired by James Taranto at The Wall
Street Journal. Taranto reaches way back to the year 2000 to a New Republic
piece by Josh Marshall, which explained every other civilized country’s ban on
the death penalty as political “elitism” — the populous in most countries
support the death penalty, but their politicians forbid it. In other words, the
political systems in these other countries are “morally superior” but “less
democratic,” Marshall wrote. “[I]n Europe and Canada elites have exercised a
kind of noblesse oblige. They’ve chosen a more civilized and humane political
order over a fully popular and participatory one. It’s a perfectly defensible
position — but it might not go over that well on ‘Crossfire.’ ”
(“Crossfire” was cancelled in 2005, but you get the picture, right?)
Eleven years on, Taranto elaborates, explaining the audience applause as rooted in a sort of patriotism:
It seems to us that the crowd’s enthusiasm last night was less sanguinary
than defiant. The applause and the responses to it reflect a generations-old
mutual contempt between the liberal elite and the large majority of the
population, which supports the death penalty.
There are, of course, reasonable arguments against the death penalty. But
opponents are too resentful at their inability to steamroll over public opinion
as if this were Europe or Canada to argue their case effectively. One of their
most ludicrous tropes is to liken the U.S. to authoritarian regimes that also
practice capital punishment. In reality, as Marshall showed, America still has
the death penalty because it is less authoritarian than Europe. Thus whenever
someone makes that argument, we feel a tinge of patriotic pride. We believe a
similar sentiment lay behind last night’s applause.
(Weirdly, the caption beneath the photo of Perry read simply, “Rick Perry has
executive experience.” Italics mine.)
Another oddity of this dust-up was the digital shrapnel that hit Brian
Williams for asking the obvious question. Matthew Sheffield at Newsbusters.org
(devoted, in the site’s own words, to “exposure of liberal media bias,
insightful analysis, constructive criticism and timely corrections to news media
reporting.”) argued that Williams showed a lot of liberal elitist gall for
even going there:
As someone who makes his living by trying to appeal, at least in some
fashion, to the emotions of crowds, Williams’s inability to understand the
audience’s spontaneous outbreak of applause response to his declaration that
Texas “has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in
modern times” is a classic case of a liberal elitist being unable to compute
that his smugly held opinions are not shared by others. It was the media analog
of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee’s Michael Dukakis’s anodyne response
when asked in a debate about whether he would want a hypothetical murderer of
his wife executed.
But perhaps I’m selling Williams’s perspicacity short. One suspects he would
likely have understood a similar audience reaction were it to applaud
enthusiastically a Democratic candidate’s firm support for abortion
legalization. Such a response could equally be perceived as grisly but it seems
unlikely that Williams would entertain such a thought.
Ann Althouse also accused Williams of baiting,
not unlike a certain CNN anchor at a 1988 Democratic presidential debate:
Williams —skillfully — lures Perry into the realm of emotion. Perhaps he’s
looking for a big moment, perhaps something like what happened to Michael
Dukakis in the second presidential debate in 1988. Dukakis was against the death
penalty, and the question asked by Bernard Shaw invited him to show some passion
and fire about crime — what if your wife were raped and murdered? — and Dukakis
stayed doggedly on his track, expressing coolly rational rejection of the death
In last night’s debate, Perry declined the invitation to show passion about
death — the death of the convicted murderer — and, like Dukakis, he stayed
coolly rational. In Sullivan’s words, he “shows no remorse” or “reflection” —
but he did show reflection, reflection about the soundness of the system of
justice. He didn’t show remorse. Remorse is what you ask a criminal to show. It
was fine for Perry not to be lured into displaying angst over executions. But
then I thought it was fine for Dukakis to keep from getting sidetracked by
Shaw’s melodramatic hypothetical. All we’re talking about is the public’s
response to the candidate and the journalist’s effort to create excitement. The
difference is, most Americans support the death penalty, and they don’t need
elaborate expressions about the deep significance of death when it’s the death
of a convicted murderer.
Certainly, as Sept. 11 approaches, the idea of revenge is in the air, as are
questions about it. Is vengeance the way of nations? Was it worth it? What is
the difference between revenge and justice? Does violence merely beget violence?
Greenwald, in the same post cited above makes the connection to the American
cheering that followed the killing of Osama bin Laden. (“In all cases,
performing giddy dances over state-produced corpses is odious and wrong.”)
Greenwald also cites Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Daily News, who believes
he saw the national sentiment that Perry tapped into. Bunch calls the death
penalty cheer “a shocking new low” in American politics. On Thursday he wrote:
“[W]ith the 10th anniversary of 9/11 just four days away, everyone’s been
looking for a window into America’s post-attack psyche. I think that, sadly,
that window just opened wide in Simi Valley last night. I’ve never forgiven my
own newspaper, the Daily News, for leading the Sept. 12, 2001, paper with an
editorial headlined ‘Blood for blood’ that started out: ‘Revenge. Hold that
thought.’ Obviously, we have — for coming up on a decade. The cheering of
executions is the hallmark of a sick society one that’s incapable of tackling
its real demons and looking for vengeance on whomever happens to be
Given the tension in the air, and the 2012 election hovering, it’s not likely
that the warring parties will come together on this or any other issue. But who
knows? Maybe we’ll all wake up one morning and see the world differently. It’s
Tags: 9/11, capital punishment, chong mah, death penalty, forgiveness, hate crime, johnnie baston, leroy white, liliana segura, mark stroman, Rais Bhuiyan, roger hollander, ruby white, state murder, texas, texas death, texas execution, texas justice, timothy adams
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families, but ignores the wishes of those who prefer forgiveness.
A death penalty case in Texas received a lot of media attention in the past several
weeks, as state prison authorities prepared to execute Mark Stroman, a man who
shot and killed two people in a vengeful rampage after September
11th. His victims, who he targeted because he thought they were Arab,
were a Pakistani man named Waqar Hasan and an Indian man named Vasudev Patel. A
third man survived. His name is Rais Bhuiyan. He is Muslim, from Bangladesh. He
has told his story to news outlets across the country; how he was approached at
the gas station where he worked, how Stroman, a tattooed white man, demanded,
“where are you from?” as he brandished a gun. How he had not yet answered when
he felt “the sensation of a million bees stinging my face, and then heard an
explosion” as Stroman shot him. Bhuiyan survived, somehow, and was
left blinded in one eye.
To the surprise of many, Bhuiyan devoted himself in the past several months
to fighting for Stroman’s life, pleading with Texas not to kill the man who
brutally shot him and left him for dead. After discussing it with Hasan’s and
Patel’s families, he started a petition on Stroman’s behalf asking the Texas
Board of Pardons and Parole to spare his life, and posting it on a
website in which he preached forgiveness: “In order to live in a better and
peaceful world, we need to break the cycle of hate and violence,” he wrote. “…I
forgave Mark Stroman many years ago. I believe he was ignorant and not capable
of distinguishing between right and wrong. Otherwise he wouldn’t have done what
he did.” Despite Bhuiyan’s efforts, Stroman was executed by lethal injection on July 20th.
Bhuiyan’s story is extraordinary in many ways, heavy with the symbolic weight
of 9/11. His willingness to forgive and even fight for the life of a man who
tried to murder him has moved many people, with good reason. But it’s worth
remembering that victims of violent crime oppose the death penalty more often
than we may realize, and, like Bhuiyan so far, they are often disregarded. As
much as prosecutors and politicians love to insist that the toughest penalties
are meted out on behalf of victims and their grieving family members, the
reality is that deference to the mantle of “victim” often relies on a
full-throated embrace of the harshest sentence for the people whose job it is
for them to punish. Anything less is liable to be ignored.
Take another Texas case from a few months back. An Army veteran named Timothy
Adams was put to death in the killing of his 19-month-old son during a standoff
with police. Adams was suicidal at the time; he immediately turned himself in
and expressed remorse for his crime. As Texas prepared to put him to death, his
family members begged for clemency. “Our family lost one child,” his father said. “We don’t deserve to lose another. After my grandson’s
death, we lived through pain worse than anyone could imagine. Nothing good will
come from executing my son Tim and causing us more anguish.” Adams was executed by lethal injection on February 23rd.
That same month, in Ohio, a man named Johnnie Baston faced execution for the
killing of a South Korean store clerk in Toledo. The man’s family members fought
for clemency, but were ignored by the state parole board, which voted
unanimously to put him to death. “While many members of Mr. Mah’s family favor a
commutation to life without parole, Mr. Baston’s lack of accepting
responsibility, criminal history, and the severity of the execution-style
killing of Mr. Chong Mah outweigh their personal opinions regarding the death
penalty and their wishes as to the sentence imposed in this case,” the parole
“The death of Johnnie Baston isn’t going to do anything that’s going to bring
back our father, give us any closure or gratification,” his son, Peter Mah
argued to no avail. Baston was executed on March 10th.
The same thing happened in Alabama in January. Leroy White was executed over the wishes of his victim’s family members,
who, as in the case of Timothy Adams, included family members of his own. White
was sentenced to death for the killing of his wife, Ruby, with whom he had a
young daughter, Latonya. In a signed affidavit, she described how despite years
of anger at her father for taking her mother away, she was now very close to him
and “have grown to love him just as much as any child would love their parent…I
know that he did a terrible thing by taking my mother’s life, but I have
forgiven him completely.”
I am deeply opposed to my father’s
execution. He is the only thing that I have left that’s a part of me. Taking
away my only remaining biological parent will hurt me more than I can say.
Executing my father will do nothing to bring my mother back. I would do anything
in my power to stop this execution from taking place.
Leroy White was executed on January 13th.
Some would argue that cases like White’s and Adams’s are different, that
of course family members of murderers will argue to spare the life of a
relative, even if they have taken one of their own. To do so sets up a strange
hierarchy of victimization—who are the “good” victims?—but one that is all too
real. The family members of death row prisoners are rarely included under the
banner of “victim’s family,” but when the state has killed your loved one, what
are you then?
As we were so aggressively reminded after the death of Osama bin Laden, the
killing of killers is celebrated as a way to bring “closure” to people who have
suffered terrible losses at their hands. There are many reasons to question this notion, but whether this is ever
true can only depend on individual experiences. What is clear is that, when
those in a position to carry out the death penalty stand upon the moral pedestal
bestowed to them as a defender of victims’ rights, such “rights” have limits.
As Jeff Gamso, a criminal defense attorney in Ohio who has worked on capital
cases, wrote a few days before Stroman’s
execution: “Texas, of course, like Ohio, like other states, like the feds, is
deeply committed to ensuring the rights of crime victims. Their voices will be
heard. Their needs will be met. They will be offered support and comfort and
help. As long as they seek vengeance. The rights of victims don’t extend to
seeking mercy. At least, not so far.”
editor with a focus on social justice, prisons & harsh sentencing
Tokyo Electric to Build US Nuclear Plants: The No BS Info on Japan’s Disastrous Nuclear Operators March 14, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Japan, Nuclear weapons/power, Texas.
Tags: Greg Palast, japan, meltdown, nuclear, nuclear power, nuclear reactors, Obama, roger hollander, tepco, texas, tokyo electric, tsunami
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Monday 14 March 2011
Texas nuclear plants planned by Tokyo Electric. (Image: NINA)
I need to speak to you, not as a reporter, but in my former capacity as lead investigator in several government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering investigations.
I don’t know the law in Japan, so I can’t tell you if Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) can plead insanity to the homicides about to happen.
But what will Obama plead? The administration, just months ago, asked Congress to provide a $4 billion loan guarantee for two new nuclear reactors to be built and operated on the Gulf Coast of Texas – by TEPCO and local partners. As if the Gulf hasn’t suffered enough. Here are the facts about TEPCO and the industry you haven’t heard on CNN:
The failure of emergency systems at Japan’s nuclear plants comes as no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field.
Nuclear plants the world over must be certified for what is called “SQ” or “Seismic Qualification.” That is, the owners swear that all components are designed for the maximum conceivable shaking event, be it from an earthquake or an exploding Christmas card from al-Qaeda.
The most inexpensive way to meet your SQ is to lie. The industry does it all the time. The government team I worked with caught them once, in 1988, at the Shoreham plant in New York. Correcting the SQ problem at Shoreham would have cost a cool billion, so engineers were told to change the tests from “failed” to “passed.”
The company that put in the false safety report? Stone & Webster, now the nuclear unit of Shaw Construction, which will work with TEPCO to build the Texas plant. Lord help us.
Last night, I heard CNN reporters repeat the official line that the tsunami disabled the pumps needed to cool the reactors, implying that water unexpectedly got into the diesel generators that run the pumps.
These safety backup systems are the “EDGs” in nuke-speak: Emergency Diesel Generators. That they didn’t work in an emergency is like a fire department telling us they couldn’t save a building because “it was on fire.”
What dim bulbs designed this system? One of the reactors dancing with death at Fukushima Station 1 was built by Toshiba. Toshiba was also an architect of the emergency diesel system.
Now be afraid. Obama’s $4 billion bailout in the making is called the South Texas Project. It’s been sold as a red-white-and-blue way to make power domestically with a reactor from Westinghouse, a great American brand. However, the reactor will be made substantially in Japan by the company that bought the US brand name, Westinghouse – Toshiba.
I once had a Toshiba computer. I only had to send it in once for warranty work. However, it’s kind of hard to mail back a reactor with the warranty slip inside the box if the fuel rods are melted and sinking halfway to the earth’s core.
TEPCO and Toshiba don’t know what my son learned in eighth grade science class: tsunamis follow Pacific Rim earthquakes. So, these companies are real stupid, eh? Maybe. More likely is that the diesels and related systems wouldn’t have worked on a fine, dry afternoon.
Back in the day, when we checked the emergency backup diesels in America, a mind-blowing number flunked. At the New York nuclear plant, for example, the builders swore under oath that their three diesel engines were ready for an emergency. They’d been tested. The tests were faked; the diesels run for just a short time at low speed. When the diesels were put through a real test under emergency-like conditions, the crankshaft on the first one snapped in about an hour, then the second and third. We nicknamed the diesels, “Snap, Crackle and Pop.”
(Note: Moments after I wrote that sentence, word came that two of three diesels failed at the Tokai Station as well.)
In the US, we supposedly fixed our diesels after much complaining by the industry. But in Japan, no one tells TEPCO to do anything the Emperor of Electricity doesn’t want to do.
I get lots of confidential notes from nuclear industry insiders. One engineer, a big name in the field, is especially concerned that Obama waved the come-hither check to Toshiba and TEPCO to lure them to America. The US has a long history of whistleblowers willing to put themselves on the line to save the public. In our racketeering case in New York, the government only found out about the seismic test fraud because two courageous engineers, Gordon Dick and John Daly, gave our team the documentary evidence.
In Japan, it’s simply not done. The culture does not allow the salary men, who work all their lives for one company, to drop the dime.
Not that US law is a wondrous shield: both engineers in the New York case were fired and blacklisted by the industry. Nevertheless, the government (local, state, federal) brought civil racketeering charges against the builders. The jury didn’t buy the corporation’s excuses and, in the end, the plant was, thankfully, dismantled.
Am I on some kind of xenophobic anti-Nippon crusade? No. In fact, I’m far more frightened by the American operators in the South Texas nuclear project, especially Shaw. Stone & Webster, now the Shaw nuclear division, was also the firm that conspired to fake the EDG tests in New York . (The company’s other exploits have been exposed by their former consultant, John Perkins, in his book, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.”) If the planet wants to shiver, consider this: Toshiba and Shaw have recently signed a deal to become worldwide partners in the construction of nuclear stations.
The other characters involved at the South Texas Plant that Obama is backing should also give you the willies. But as I’m in the middle of investigating the American partners, I’ll save that for another day.
So, if we turned to America’s own nuclear contractors, would we be safe? Well, two of the melting Japanese reactors, including the one whose building blew sky high, were built by General Electric of the Good Old US of A.
After Texas, you’re next. The Obama administration is planning a total of $56 billion in loans for nuclear reactors all over America.
And now, the homicides:
CNN is only interested in body counts, how many workers burnt by radiation, swept away or lost in the explosion. These plants are now releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere. Be skeptical about the statements that the “levels are not dangerous.” These are the same people who said these meltdowns could never happen. Over years, not days, there may be a thousand people, two thousand, ten thousand who will suffer from cancers induced by this radiation.
In my New York investigation, I had the unhappy job of totaling up post-meltdown “morbidity” rates for the county government. It would be irresponsible for me to estimate the number of cancer deaths that will occur from these releases without further information; but it is just plain criminal for the TEPCO shoguns to say that these releases are not dangerous.
Indeed, the fact that residents near the Japanese nuclear plants were not issued iodine pills to keep at the ready shows TEPCO doesn’t care who lives and who dies, whether in Japan or the USA. The carcinogenic isotopes that are released at Fukushima are already floating to Seattle with effects we simply cannot measure.
Heaven help us. Because Obama won’t.
“It’s Safe to Assume We Execute Innocent People” March 11, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Texas.
Tags: abby zimet, capital punishment, crime, Criminal Justice, death penalty, innocence project, kevin fine, texas
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(Roger’s note: You want to know how wishy-washy liberal I am? When Texas’ own George W. Bush is tried and convicted for crimes against humanity, which include massive death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, I will oppose capital punishment and advocate for life imprisonment without bail.)
by Abby Zimet, www.commondreams.org, March 5, 2010
A judge in Texas, which has long led the country in executions, has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional. The ruling by state District Judge Kevin Fine, a tattooed recovering drug addict, infuriated prosecutors and set a precedent that observers say is likely to be overtuned.
“Based on the moratorium (on the death penalty) in Illinois, the Innocence Project and more than 200 people being exonerated nationwide, it can only be concluded that innocent people have been executed,” Fine said. “It’s safe to assume we execute innocent people.”
Fine ruled in the case of John Green, accused of shooting a woman in 2008.
Tags: cameron todd willingham, capital punishment, Criminal Justice, death penalty, frances newton, George W. Bush, napolean beazely, rick perry, roger hollander, ronald mock, terry lee hankins, texas, texas board of pardons, texas executions, timothy cole
Today marks the 200th execution under Perry, a record even deadlier than George W. Bush’s tenure. What’s the matter with Texas?
At roughly 6 p.m. tonight, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will make history when he presides over the 200th execution of his tenure. It’s a chilling achievement, one that dwarfs that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who famously signed off on 152 (with a little help from his friend, then-legal counsel Alberto Gonzales).
Barring a most unlikely twist of fate, there’s little doubt that Terry Lee Hankins will be dead by sunset. For death-penalty enthusiasts, this is cause for celebration; Hawkins — a self-described “non-caring monster” who shot his wife and children in their sleep — is held up as a poster child for state killing. One appellate prosecutor for the Texas Attorney General’s office, Georgette Oden — who recently joked on her blog that when asked at cocktail parties “So, what do you do?” she likes to boast “I kill people” — wrote: “He’s my best example of the kind of person who deserves the death penalty.”
People like Oden would love to claim that all the people on death row are so cartoonishly deserving of death. But the past 25 years have painted a far more complicated picture, one that has shown the death penalty to be fraught with error, corruption, racism and prosecutorial misconduct.
Perry should know. His years in office have been marked by last-minute commutations, controversial executions and some 35 DNA exonerations of wrongfully convicted prisoners. In Harris County, which sends more prisoners to the death chamber than any other jurisdiction in the country, an ever-evolving scandal over its dilapidated and mismanaged forensics crime lab has provided an alarming backdrop to innocence claims by Texas prisoners, leaving little question that countless prisoners have been sent to prison — and death row — on tainted evidence.
One recent example is the tragic case of Timothy Cole, who spent 13 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Cole, who suffered from severe asthma, died behind bars in 1999 only to be posthumously exonerated 10 years later when the real criminal came forward. Cole always insisted upon his innocence, refusing an offer of early parole on the condition that he admit his guilt.
“His greatest wish was to be exonerated and completely vindicated,” his mother, Ruby Session, told Austin news station KXAN in February 2009.
A Cruel Legacy
Examining Perry’s long execution record, a number of cases stand out.
There was Napoleon Beazely, one of the last juvenile offenders executed in the United States, who was put to death in 2002. Beazely was 17 years old, an honor student, football star and senior class president with no prior criminal record when he fatally shot 63-year-old John Luttig, the father of a federal judge, in what was described as an attempted hijacking. By all accounts a model prisoner during his eight years on death row, Beazley admitted his guilt and repeatedly expressed his remorse for the crime:
“I knew it was wrong,” he told a packed courtroom at his sentencing hearing. “I know it is wrong now. I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since that moment. I’ve apologized ever since that moment, not just through words, but through my acts. … It’s my fault. I violated the law. I violated this city, and I violated a family — all to satisfy my own misguided emotions. I’m sorry. I wish I had a second chance to make up for it, but I don’t.”
A number of unlikely advocates tried to save Beazely’s life. According to the American Bar Association, “even Cindy Garner, the district attorney from Napoleon’s home county (Houston County), testified at the sentencing hearing on Napoleon’s behalf. While she has been a strong proponent of the death penalty, she continues to maintain that the death penalty is inappropriate in Napoleon’s case.” Another unlikely ally was his trial judge, Cynthia Kent, who wrote to Perry asking him to commute his sentence to life in prison, a request that fell on deaf ears.
In August 2001, the Supreme Court denied Beazely a stay of execution. In an unusual move, three of the justices — Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and David Souter — recused themselves because they had personal relationships with the victim’s son.
Beazely was executed on May 28, 2002. “Tonight we tell the world that there are no second chances in the eyes of justice,” he said before being injected with lethal chemicals. “Tonight, we tell our children that in some instances, in some cases, killing is right.”
Three years later, in the landmark case Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute prisoners who committed their crimes before the age of 18, commuting all such death sentences to life.
‘Maybe this man was innocent’: The Case of Cameron Todd Willingham
Beazely may have been guilty of the crime for which he was executed. But others have almost certainly not been.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004, for setting fire to his own one-story home, a blaze that killed his three young daughters (1-year-old twins and their 2-year-old sister). Willingham was convicted and sent to death row on a hastily executed arson investigation and jurors’ suspicion over the fact that he managed to escape the fire himself. But he maintained his innocence for years, right until he was strapped to the gurney.
“I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit,” he said in his final statement. “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.”
Ten months later, on Dec. 9, 2004, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative article that cast serious doubt on Willingham’s guilt.
“While Texas authorities dismissed his protests, a Tribune investigation of his case shows that Willingham was prosecuted and convicted based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances,” wrote staff reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley. “According to four fire experts consulted by the Tribune, the original investigation was flawed, and it is even possible the fire was accidental.”
Among the experts was Louisiana Fire Chief Kendall Ryland, who said it “made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation. … They executed this guy, and they’ve just got no idea — at least not scientifically — if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set.”
“Did anybody know about this prior to his execution?” asked Dorinda Brokofsky, one of the jurors who sent him to die. “Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent.”
The Willingham case “should shake the confidence of any Texan,” says Scott Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network. ” … The risk of executing an innocent person is very real in Texas because of the pace of executions, exemplified by Perry’s record of 200. When you are executing that many people, the possibility of making a mistake is increased, and that is likely what happened in the Willingham case.”
Less than a year after the Tribune‘s investigation, 40-year-old Frances Newton became the third woman to be executed by the state of Texas since 1982 (and the first African American woman in the modern era) despite the strong possibility that she was innocent. Her trial attorney, Ronald Mock, was a notoriously incompetent defense lawyer (who was later suspended for said incompetence).
“For so many of the people whom Ron was appointed to represent, their death warrant was signed when the ink was dry on the appointment form,” one defense lawyer told the Houston Chronicle.
The case against Newton (who was charged with killing her husband and children) was based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, including the fact that she had recently taken out life insurance policies on her husband and daughter. David Dow, head of the Texas Innocence Network, acknowledged at a clemency hearing for Newton that the evidence against her was “superficially compelling” — but, he said, “appearances can be misleading.”
“From the beginning, Frances Newton has maintained her innocence,” reported Jordan Smith in the Austin Chronicle on Sept. 9, 2005, days before Newton’s execution. “She has also offered a plausible alternative theory of the crime — a theory that neither police, prosecutors nor Newton’s own trial attorney, the infamous and now-suspended Ronald Mock, have ever investigated.” According to Newton, her family members had been murdered at the behest of a drug dealer to whom her husband owed money.
Newton’s insistence on her innocence — and the lack of physical evidence linking her to the crime was compelling enough to at least catch Perry’s attention.
“Lingering questions about the physical evidence against Newton prompted the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend, and Gov. Rick Perry to grant, a 120-day reprieve for Newton on Dec. 1, 2004 — the day she was last scheduled for execution,” Smith reported. But a mishandling of the evidence by the Harris County crime lab made it impossible to reconsider new evidence of her innocence; despite the fact that there was “even more doubt about Newton’s guilt than there was when she was granted the stay.”
On Sept. 1, 2005 Newton’s execution went forward, with her mother and sisters watching, as well as her parents-in-law, who on Aug. 25 wrote to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole: “We never wanted to see Frances get executed. … When the trial occurred, nobody from the [DA's] office ever asked … our opinion. We were willing to testify on Frances’ behalf, but Frances’ defense lawyer never approached us. … We do not wish to suffer the loss of another family member.”
The Lone Star State versus International Law
More recently, last summer Perry declined to grant a stay of execution in the case of José Medellin, a Mexican national who was sent to death row when he was 18 on rape and murder charges. Medellin, who was jailed in 1993, was kept ignorant of his right to talk to a consular official at the time of his arrest — a right bestowed on him by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
According to Amnesty International, “because of this treaty violation, José Medellín was deprived of the extensive assistance that Mexico provides for the defense of its citizens facing capital charges in the USA. The Mexican Consulate did not learn about the case until nearly four years after José Medellín’s arrest, by which time his trial and the initial appeal affirming his conviction and death sentence had already concluded.”
Aside from becoming a major diplomatic flap between the U.S. and Mexico, the Medellin case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in March 2008 that the United States was obligated by international law to comply with an International Court of Justice decision that the U.S. provide judicial “review and reconsideration” of the convictions of some 50 Mexican nationals on death row in the United States. This did little to help Medellin however.
“Even President Bush, who signed scores of death warrants as Texas governor, concurred some time ago that the United States must honor its international obligations in this case,” Amnesty International’s Larry Cox said in the run-up to Medellin’s execution. “There will be no clearer sign that Texas will have gone beyond the pale than if José Medellin’s execution goes forward.” Not surprisingly, Texas did just that, killing Medellin on Aug. 5, 2008.
“Texans are doing just fine governing Texas,” Perry once said in response to pressure from the European Union to stop the execution of a man who did not commit the murder for which he was sentenced to death. (That man, Kenneth Foster, Jr., was later spared, in a historic move due entirely to an activist campaign to save his life.) That Perry would not hesitate to execute a foreign national in violation of international law should come as no surprise.
What’s the Matter With Texas?
As with George W. Bush’s tenure, whole volumes could be written on Perry and the death sentences carried out in Texas under his watch; but perhaps the most salient question at the end of the day is why. Why — especially at a time when much of the rest of the country (indeed, the world) is turning its back on the death penalty — does Texas continue to carry out executions at such a disturbingly frantic pace?
What is it about Texas that it breeds such figures as Judge Sharon Keller, who, on the day the Supreme Court decided to hear a landmark case on the constitutionality of lethal injection, refused to allow a last-minute appeal filed by attorneys trying to save the life of a client scheduled to die that night because, in her words, “We close at 5″?
“Executions in the U.S. have become largely a Southern practice,” says Scott Cobb. “Last year, 95 percent of all executions were in the South. It is the legacy of the Old South and its history of slavery, lynchings and segregation that is the reason why the South executes so many people compared to other parts of the U.S.
“In Texas, the situation is compounded by the political system of electing judges, such as Sharon Keller, who are allowed to make egregious pro-death-penalty statements when they run for office and to present themselves as ‘pro-prosecution’ when they should be impartial arbiters of justice. Politicians are several steps behind public opinion on the death-penalty issue.”
Cobb argues that, when presented with the damning evidence that there are innocent people on death row, Texans would certainly reconsider the death penalty.
“If we had a referendum in Texas on a moratorium on executions, that is a vote we could win,” he says. “When people are informed about the problems in the system, then they are supportive of a moratorium on executions. I am absolutely sure that Texas will abolish the death penalty in my lifetime, and Rick Perry’s record of 200-plus executions will never again be matched.”
A Day of Action Against Executions
In December 2005, Texas executed its 1,000th prisoner since the return of capital punishment in 1976. “This 1,000th execution is a milestone,” Thomas Maher, the defense attorney who represented Kenneth Boyd, the 1,000th prisoner, said after watching his client be put to death. “It’s a milestone we should all be ashamed of.”
Perry has overseen more executions than any other governor in U.S. history. As he approaches his own morbid professional milestone, a network of activists throughout Texas — and in cities across the globe — will hold protests calling for an end to the barbaric practice of state-sanctioned murder.
“The Texas anti-death-penalty community asks people around the world to focus attention on Texas and join us in protesting the 200th execution carried out under Rick Perry,” announced Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network. “Altogether, Texas has executed 438 people since 1982, including 152 under former Texas Gov. George W. Bush.”
Cobb urges people to call Perry at 512-463-1782 and/or to e-mail him using the form on his Web site. (“We suggest you both call him and e-mail him.”)
“I hope to tell the world outside Texas that we need their help to pressure Texas to stop executions,” says Cobb. ” … Many people around the world have business and other relationships with Texas, such as Leipzig, Germany, which is holding a protest on June 2, and which has a sister city relationship with Houston.
“For the people of Texas, I want to use the occasion of this appalling milestone to educate them about the unjust system that is carrying out executions in their names. Not only has Texas likely executed innocent people, like Todd Willingham, it has also sent people to death row who did not even kill anyone but who were sentenced to death under the Law of Parties because someone else killed someone, people like Jeff Wood, who may soon receive another execution date if the courts decide he is mentally fit for execution. Jeff Wood did not kill anyone. He was in a car outside when another person killed someone.” (Read more about Wood, here.)
Bryan McCann, of the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty said: “For the 200th time in his career as governor, Rick Perry — with the complicity of the Texas Legislature and courts — has made it clear that he is uninterested in acknowledging the mounting and irrefutable evidence that the death penalty is incompatible with the aims of a just society.
“This grim milestone is an important opportunity to put Perry and his allies on notice that they are fighting a losing battle.”