jump to navigation

Dead Man Walking, 20 Years On June 20, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
Published on Thursday, June 20, 2013 by TruthDig.com 

  by  Amy Goodman

Thirty years ago, a Catholic nun working in a poor neighborhood of New Orleans was asked if she would be a pen pal to a death-row prisoner. Sister Helen Prejean agreed, forever changing her life, as well as the debate on capital punishment in this country.

Her experiences inspired her first book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” which has just been republished on its 20th anniversary. She was a pen pal with Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer on death row in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. In her distinctive Southern accent, she told me of her first visit to Sonnier: “It was scary as all get-out. I had never been in a prison before. … I was scared to meet him personally. When I saw his face, it was so human, it blew me away. I got a realization then, no matter what he had done … he is worth more than the worst thing he ever did. And the journey began from there.”

Photo: michele molinari/cc/flickr

Sister Helen became Sonnier’s spiritual adviser, conversing with him as his execution approached. She spent his final hours with him, and witnessed his execution on April 5, 1984. She also was a spiritual advisor to another Angola death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie, who was executed the same year. The book was made into a film, directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as the character Matthew Poncelet, an amalgam of Sonnier and Williams. Sarandon won the Oscar for Best Actress, and the film’s success further intensified the national debate on the death penalty.

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world still using the death penalty. There are currently 3,125 people on death row in the U.S., although death-penalty opponents continue to make progress. Maryland is the most recent state to abolish capital punishment. After passage of the law, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley wrote: “Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole. What’s more, there is no way to reverse a mistake if an innocent person is put to death.”

Studies of the racial bias abound. The Death Penalty Information Center, citing a recent Louisiana Law Review study, reports that in Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97 percent higher for crimes in which the victim was white than those where the victim was African-American. Nationally, 75 percent of the cases that resulted in an execution had white victims.

Although Colorado is not one of the states to abolish the death penalty, Gov. John Hickenlooper used his executive authority to grant a temporary reprieve to one of the three death-row prisoners there, saying, “It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives.”

This week, Indiana released a former death-row prisoner. Paula Cooper was convicted for the 1985 murder of Ruth Pelke. Cooper was sentenced to death at the age of 16, and was, at the time, the youngest person on death row in this country. Pelke’s grandson, Bill Pelke, actively campaigned for clemency for her: “I became convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my grandmother would have been appalled by the fact that this girl was on death row and there was so much hate and anger towards her.” He went on, “When Paula was taken off of death row in the fall of 1989, I thought, ‘Well, that’s it. She’s off of death row. My mission has been accomplished.’”

Nevertheless, Pelke joined a march from Florida’s death-row prison to Atlanta, on which he met Sister Helen Prejean. “After 17 days of walking down the highways with this nun, you get a real education about the death penalty. It was on that march with Sister Helen Prejean where I dedicated my life to the abolition of the death penalty,” he said. “As long as there’s any state in this world that’s killing their own citizens, I’m going to stand up and say that it’s wrong.”

Prejean said one of her greatest regrets was that she failed to reach out to the families of the murder victims while she was spiritual adviser to Sonnier and Willie. She went on to found Survive, an organization to support families of murder victims like Pelke. She wrapped up our conversation this week by saying: “I’ve accompanied six human beings and watched them be killed. I have a dedication to them to do this; I can’t walk away from this. I’m going to be doing this until I die.”

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

© 2013 Amy Goodman



Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 1,100 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.


Human Rights Watch decries U.S. prison system January 31, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Torture, War on Terror.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Thursday, Jan 31, 2013 10:25 AM EST

The NGO’s World Report criticizes mass incarceration and U.S. record of torture and extrajudicial killing



Human Rights Watch decries U.S. prison system (Credit: Shutterstock)

Human Rights Watch Thursday published its annual World Report, in which it lays out a pointed critique of the U.S. prison system. The enormous prison population  — the largest in the world at 1.6million — “partly reflects harsh sentencing practices contrary to international law,” notes the report.

The 2013 World Report, a 665-page tome which assesses human rights progress in the past year in 90 countries, highlights particular issues undergirding the U.S.’s blighted carceral system. It notes that “practices contrary to human rights principles, such as the death penalty, juvenile life-without-parole sentences, and solitary confinement are common and often marked by racial disparities.” Via HRW:

Research in 2012 found that the massive over-incarceration includes a growing number of elderly people whom prisons are ill-equipped to handle, and an estimated 93,000 youth under age 18 in adult jails and another 2,200 in adult prisons. Hundreds of children are subjected to solitary confinement. Racial and ethnic minorities remain disproportionately represented in the prison population.

HRW cite statistics often used to show racial disparities in the U.S. prison system. For example, while whites, African Americans and Latinos have comparable rates of drug use, African Americans are arrested for drug offenses, including possession, at three times the rate of white men.

“The United States has shown little interest in tackling abusive practices that have contributed to the country’s huge prison population,” said Maria McFarland, deputy U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately, it is society’s most vulnerable – racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people, immigrants, children, and the elderly – who are most likely to suffer from injustices in the criminal justice system.”

Although noting some progress in 2012 (both D.C. and Connecticut joined the ranks of 16 states to have abolished the death penalty), HRW also stressed continuing injustices in U.S. immigration policies, labor issues and treatment of minorities, women, the disabled and HIV positive individuals. The report was particularly critical when reviewing the U.S.’s counterterrorism policies. The NGO noted in a statement:

Both the Obama administration and Congress supported abusive counterterrorism laws and policies, including detention without charge at Guantanamo Bay, restrictions on the transfer of detainees held there, and prosecutions in a fundamentally flawed military commission system.  Attacks by US aerial drones were carried out in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, with important legal questions about the attacks remaining unanswered.

The administration has taken no steps toward accountability for torture and other abuses committed by US officials in the so-called “war on terror,” and a Justice Department criminal investigation into detainee abuse concluded without recommending any charges. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence completed a more than 6,000-page report detailing the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program, but has yet to seek the report’s declassification so it can be released to the public.

The World Report explicitly mentions Obama’s signing of the NDAA in 2011 (an act he repeated this year), noting, “The act codified the existing executive practice of detaining terrorism suspects indefinitely without charge, and required that certain terrorism suspects be initially detained by the military if captured inside the U.S..”

Next week, the lawsuit against Obama over the NDAA’s definite detention provision will be back in federal court as plaintiffs including Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky seek an injunction prohibiting indefinite detention of civilians without charge or trial.

Comments from HRW’s McFarland point out what’s at stake for the president here: “The Obama administration has a chance in its second term to develop with Congress a real plan for closing Guantanamo and definitively ending abusive counterterrorism practices,” McFarland said. “A failure to do so puts Obama at risk of going down in history as the president who made indefinite detention without trial a permanent part of U.S. law.”

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com. More Natasha Lennard.

US Joins with Iran, N. Korea, Syria in Opposing Abolition of Death Penalty November 20, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

Roger’s note: the United States government via its military actions, arms exports and financing of other governments’ (such as Israel) military adventures, is responsible for thousands of criminal deaths.  Most of the States execute hundreds of mostly Afro-American, Latino and indigenous inmates.  And that’s not to mention wholesale torture.  But abort a three-month old fetus?  Murder!!! 


Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 by Common Dreams

As world makes progress towards abolishing state-sanctioned murder, US remains defiant

  – Common Dreams staff

The US on Monday once again voted down a resolution at the UN calling for an international moratorium on the death penalty. In doing so, the US joined nations it often critcizes as human rights “outliers” like Iran, North Korea, Syria and China in opposition to a growing global trend away from the practice.

 A record number of countries voted to abolish the death penalty, but the US sided with Iran and North Korea on the issue. (Photo: Eric Risberg/AP)

Though the US often loudly criticizes other nations for their human rights records, the US in recent years has lost its moral footing in the wake of torture scandals, its continued position on the death penalty, and because of many policies practiced under the umbrella of what it calls the “war on terror.”

US allies in the European Union, as well as Israel, Australia, Brazil and South Africa were among the growing number of nations who voted in support of the resolution, which grew to 110 nations this year from 107 when the resolution was last put to a vote in 2010.

Norway wrote on its Twitter account was “a great result.”

In May, the US annual human rights report criticized Iran, Syria, China and other countries for human rights abuses, and “had particularly harshly worded condemnation of Iran and Syria,” countries the US said it was “watching,” The Guardian reported.

Yet the US has also been subject to criticism from Amnesty International and other groups over such abuses as domestic executions, extrajudicial drone strikes overseas, wars of aggression and its prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Norway, along with France’s new government, campaigned for the full General Assembly to pass a resolution in December calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

The vote is non-binding, but diplomats say it would increase moral pressure. As The Nation reports:

The vote tears apart traditional alliances at the United Nations. The United States, Japan, China, Iran, India, North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe were among 39 countries to oppose the non-binding resolution in the assembly’s rights committee. Thirty-six countries abstained.

Some 150 countries have abolished or instituted a moratorium on capital punishment, according to Amnesty International.

The organization reports that  China executed “thousands” of prisoners in 2011, and other countries executing at least 680, “with Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia major users of capital punishment.”

In the United States, Illinois last year became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.

I am still Troy Davis and I am still committed to taking the death penalty system down! September 23, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment
I am still Troy Davis and I am still committed to taking the death penalty system down!
Georgia — we’ve got unfinished business.
One year ago today, you did the unthinkable. You executed a man even though the case against him had fallen apart. You had the chance to commute his sentence to life to avoid the risk of executing someone for a crime he may not have committed, but you dashed that option. Add to that, you carried out the execution in my name.
For the rest of our lives, we are left to wonder: Did Georgia kill an innocent man?
roger, I remember the intense mix of emotions I felt on September 21, 2011. I remember the anger and horror. But most of all, I remember feeling a strong resolve come over me to take the death penalty system down!
Georgia officials — we’re not letting you off the hook, but this time we’re also involving the U.S. Department of Justice to give Troy Davis’ case — and others — the scrutiny they deserve. Investigate the execution of Troy Davis and patterns of government misconduct in death penalty cases.
We’ve been busy over the past year — building a stronger case for why the death penalty system must be abolished. You see, all of the alarms we sounded in the case of Troy Davis — including alleged police coercion of witnesses — are many of the same alarms we’ve sounded before in other instances where people’s lives are on the line.
In far too many cases, death and doubt go hand-in-hand: from Troy Davis to Robert Waterhouse, who was executed in Florida on Feb. 15 of this year, despite the fact that evidence from the crime scene had been destroyed before it could be subjected to DNA analysis. Let’s not forget Reggie Clemons, who is fighting for his life right now, despite the fact that the case against him was likely built on police brutality and an abusive prosecutor.
That’s why Amnesty International, along with the NAACP, is taking 10 well-documented capital cases, including Troy’s, to the very top of the justice system — and demanding not just answers, but accountability.
Help us put the justice system in check!
The death penalty is fundamentally flawed because it’s fallible — it makes mistakes. Since 1973, 140 people have been released from death row due to evidence of innocence.
When the death penalty system gets it wrong, there’s no going back. Guilty or innocent, the death penalty is a terrible power that shouldn’t belong to government.
It’s okay to remember the sadness and anger we felt one year ago, but it’s more important that we remember Troy’s dying wish — “to not give up the struggle for justice…to keep fighting for the other Troy Davises on death row.”
With your support, we intend to do just that. Keep Troy Davis’ struggle for justice alive!
In Solidarity,
Laura Moye Death Penalty Abolition Campaign Director Amnesty International USA
P.S. Please share this imagewith your friends and family today. Tell them all about Troy Davis.

What if he was innocent?
http://www.kintera.org/TR.asp?a=ckLSIaMQLeJVLdN1E&s=enJLLSOqGaJLIPOkHiG&m=beKNJYPuEdKOL4KOne year ago today, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, despite issues of unfairness and overwhelming doubts about his guilt. Today, we’re taking our case for accountability to the top of the justice system!


http://www.kintera.org/TR.asp?a=8qKKJYPAIaLNK3PNF&s=enJLLSOqGaJLIPOkHiG&m=beKNJYPuEdKOL4K http://www.kintera.org/TR.asp?a=btIQK7MMKdKTIdO0E&s=enJLLSOqGaJLIPOkHiG&m=beKNJYPuEdKOL4K

http://www.kintera.org/TR.asp?a=emKWKgNYIgIZKnNdG&s=enJLLSOqGaJLIPOkHiG&m=beKNJYPuEdKOL4K http://www.kintera.org/TR.asp?a=9hJMJ1PEKbJQL0OKH&s=enJLLSOqGaJLIPOkHiG&m=beKNJYPuEdKOL4K
© 2012 Amnesty International USA | 5 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10001 | 212.807.8400


Uganda Gay Pride September 8, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Human Rights, LGBT, Uganda.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle on Their Journey From Death Row to the Wedding Altar November 23, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far
www.democracynow.org, November 23, 2011

Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle each served years on death row — Jacobs here in the United States and Pringle in Ireland. Both were exonerated after their convictions were overturned for murders that they steadfastly maintained they did not commit.  They began dating shortly after meeting while both publicly campaigning against the death penalty. Their wedding earlier this month was perhaps the first of its kind — the union of two exonerated death row inmates. Joining us from their home in Ireland, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle recount their remarkable story from death row to the wedding altar.

Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs, was sentenced to death at the age of 28 for the murder of two police officers in Florida. When she was imprisoned, her two young children were cast into the foster care system. Nearly 17 years after her arrest, Sunny’s conviction was overturned on appeal. Her story, along with those of five other wrongfully convicted death row inmates, became “The Exonerated,” a play put on by the nonprofit theater Culture Project.  Sunny is the author of, “Stolen Time: One Woman’s Inspiring Story As An Innocent Condemned To Death.”
Peter Pringle, was accused of being one of three men who had murdered two police officers following a bank robbery in Ireland. After his conviction, he had been sentenced to be hanged. Just days before a noose was tied around his neck, Pringle learned that Ireland’s president had commuted his sentence to 40 years without parole. Pringle then immersed himself into legal books and effectively became a “jailhouse lawyer”.  Serving as his own counsel. Pringle successfully plead his case, leading the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed his conviction. He is a human rights and anti-death penalty activist.
Related stories
  This transcript is available free of charge.  However, donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.  Donate

Related Links

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced yesterday that he would halt all executions in the state during his time in office. He said, “I refuse to be part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer.” Kitzhaber, a physician, noted that he had allowed two previous executions to go forward under his watch, but had since agonized over the decisions.

GOV. JOHN KITZHABER: Those were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have ever made as governor, and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again for the past 14 years. I do not believe those executions made us safer. Certainly, I don’t believe they made us more noble as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something that I believe to be morally wrong.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was the Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber. In all, 34 states allow the death penalty, but only 27 have executed someone in the past decade, according to The Death Penalty Information Center.

AMY GOODMAN: In an oddly related story, I was reading the marriage section of New York Times this past weekend and saw a piece about the wedding of a couple in Manhattan earlier this month; Peter Pringle and Sonia Jacobs. Their photograph wasn’t that unusual. Perhaps they were older than most newlyweds, Sunny was 64, Peter 73, but it was a story of their lives and their coming together that we will spend the rest of our show on today. Both Sunny and Peter have survived the death penalty. They survived death row and have been exonerated since. Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle each served a decade and a half on death row; Jacobs in the U.S., Pringle in Ireland. Both gained freedom after their convictions were overturned for murders that they steadfastly maintained they did not commit. The two would both become passionate anti-death penalty activists and their activism brought them together.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Pringle was accused of participating in a murder of two police officers following a bank robbery in Ireland. After his conviction he was sentenced to death by hanging. Just days before a noose was to be tied around his neck, Peter learned Ireland’s president had commuted his sentence to 40 years without parole. He then immersed himself in legal text and effectively become a jailhouse lawyer. Serving as his own counsel, he eventually convinced the Court of Criminal Appeals to quash his conviction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sonia, known as Sunny, was sentenced to death, along with her then husband, at the age of 28 for the alleged murder of two police officers in Florida. Her two young children were cast into the foster care system. Although the two maintained their innocence, it was after her husband was executed and another man confessed to the murder, that she was exonerated. Nearly 17 years after her arrest, Sunny’s conviction was overturned on appeal. She is the author of, Stolen Time: One Woman’s Inspiring Story as An Innocent Condemned To Death. Sunny’s story, along with those of five other wrongfully convicted death row inmates, became The Exonerated. Sunny has been portrayed by 28 actresses, including Mia Farrow, Brooke Shields, Amy Irving and Susan Sarandon, some of whom attended her wedding. This is Susan Sarandon playing Sunny in The Exonerated, reflecting on the murder charges leveled against her.

SUSAN SARANDON: My husband, Jesse, was tried first. He had a past record from when he was 17 years old and his trial lasted four days. We both had, of course, no good attorneys, no dream team, no expert witnesses. And so he was convicted and sentenced to death. My trial came later, and I thought, surely, that won’t happen to me. I mean, I was a hippie. I’m one of those peace and love people. I’m a vegetarian. How could you possibly think that I would kill someone? And so, I thought that I’d just—-I’d go in and they’d figure out I didn’t kill anyone and they’d let it go. but that’s not how it works.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Susan Sarandon playing Sonia Jacobs in the play The Exonerated, put on by The Culture Project, here in New York. Well, Sunny and Peter have since spoken in schools, churches, other venues across the country and the world on human rights and abolishing the death penalty. Their wedding earlier this month was perhaps the first of its kind, the union of two exonerated death row prisoners. And so we go to Galway, right now, to Ireland to be joined by the newly weds themselves, the former death row exonerees, modern day human rights activists, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle. Sunny and Peter, congratulations on your wedding. Welcome to Democracy Now!. We’re going to talk about your activism today. But I want to start with Sunny. If you wouldn’t mind going back in time and telling your story, how it was you and your husband since executed, ended up on death row, your first husband.

SONIA JACOBS: Well, briefly, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. And as a result, we ended up being present when two police officers were killed. And the man who actually did the killing took a plea bargain, which I do not think should be allowed in capital cases, which I don’t think should be allowed in capitol cases, and testified against us saying that we did it. He in turn was given three life sentences in exchange for his testimony. Jessie’s trial, as you know, took four days and he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. My trial took longer because I was a young mother of two children and had never been in trouble for anything violent in my life. Aside from his testimony, they also brought in a young woman who had been arrested for a drugs violation. And in order not to go to prison for a long time herself, she also testified. As a result of that, and the judge’s instructions to the jury, my jury voted for conviction. But, when it came to the sentencing phase of the trial, my jury, actually, was not able to be unanimous because one man held out for his own beliefs, rather than giving in to the pressure that was being put upon him to agree, and so my jury voted for life. The judge overruled the jury in my case and voted for—-and sentenced me to death.

AMY GOODMAN: The picture of what happened, the date that it happened, you were all driving in a car; you, your husband, Jesse, your two kids and the driver who eventually turned out to be the one that confessed. What happened? You were in Florida?

SONIA JACOBS: Yes, we were in Florida, and we were just getting a lift from one place to the other. And it got late with visiting here and there, and so we decided to pull off into a rest area on the interstate. I was asleep in the back with the children when the policeman came to do a routine check of the area, as I now know, and saw a gun between the driver’s feet, opened the door, took the gun, pulled him out, asked for his identification, called it in, and when they found out that he was on parole, that, of course, is a violation of parole, and then the scene turned ugly, and the shooting began. I ducked down to cover the children, and when I looked up, the policemen were dead and we were ordered into the police car by the man who had done the killing and driven away. So at that point, we basically had become hostages.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re both given life—-your both sentenced to death, you and Jesse. You’ve lost your children. Your children went where?

SONIA JACOBS: Well, at first, my children were held in custody. My daughter was only 10 months old at the time, and my son was 9 years old. It took my parents a couple of weeks to get my daughter. But. it took two months to get my son who was being held in the juvenile detention center in isolation because he was so young. And as a result, he was very traumatized. He was actually taken to hearings at night, handcuffed behind his back without any representation as a nine-year old boy. So when, finally, my parents were able to get a hold of him because the kind-hearted judge ordered him to be released, he developed a speech impediment and he had to be put in special school. From then on they lived with my parents, for the next six years, until my parents were killed in a plane crash, and then they went into care.

AMY GOODMAN: They went into foster care. So you wrote back and forth with your husband, Jesse, as you both sat on death row. How long were you on death row? How long were you in solitary? Explain what happened to Jesse?

SONIA JACOBS: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because, you see, the man had a death row, the women didn’t have a death row. At the time that I was convicted, I was the only woman the sentence of death in the U.S. because three years prior, they had stopped sentencing people to death. There was a sort of moratorium in the United States against using the death penalty. And so, there was, actually, no one on death row for a while. And then there were men on death row. But, as you know, murder is mostly a problem of men, not women. Women argue and smack each other, and men kill each other. And so, at the time, there were a few men on death row where Jesse was sent, but there were no women. So I was sent to the maximum security women’s prison in Florida and put into a unit all by myself, and I spent the next five years in solitary confinement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sunny, you also talk about how it is that while you were in prison, you made your cell a kind of sanctuary. Can you talk about how you did that?

SONIA JACOBS: Yes. At first, when I was first sent to—-got my death sentence, I couldn’t really process it because. It just was beyond my imagining how it could even happen to me, no less, actually be a reality. And so my cell was very small. It was six steps from the door until the toilet. And if I reached out my arms to both sides, I could touch the walls. And all there was in the cell was a metal shelf on which there was a thin mattress and a pillow. And then there was a sink and toilet, and that’s all there was. There were no bars. There was a solid metal door. And the guards were under orders not to speak to me. And so, I just paced back and forth, mostly in anger and confusion, and truth be known, in fear, that they would actually kill me. I had no communication whatsoever with the outside world at first; no phone calls, no visits. I didn’t get out of my cell. It wasn’t 23 out of 24 hours a day in the cell, it was 24 hours in the cell, except for twice a week when I was taken out for a quick shower and was given some prison clothing and allowed to spend a few moments out in a courtyard with a guard, and then brought back into my cell again.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And during this time, actually, the guards were forbidden, even, from speaking to you?

SONIA JACOBS: And I had no books. Yes, yes, because if there were going to participate in my execution, they couldn’t see me as another human being and sympathize with me. I had to be less than human. And in order to do that, we couldn’t have conversations. Anyway, so I had a Bible and a law book. The law book was useless because I couldn’t even understand the language and the Bible, I considered it a book of wisdom at the time, because I wasn’t even sure there was a god anymore, because I could not imagine how God could let this happen to me and my whole family. Because it doesn’t just happen to one person, it happens to the entire family.

AMY GOODMAN: Sunny, I wanted to ask, after your parents were killed in that Pan Am…

SONIA JACOBS: I was going to finish answering your question about how I turned my cell into a sanctuary. I didn’t mean to take so long to get there, but I read something in the Bible that told me, that they don’t say when I die. And it was at that point that I realized that until they do end up taking my life or setting me free, which I thought would be the proper result, my life still belonged to me. And that it would be foolish of me to spend the rest of my life, be it long or be it short, in fear and anger and confusion. So, I decided that the cell could become my sanctuary, and instead of waiting to die, I could use my time to make myself the best person I could be. And so, that’s how I turned my cell into a sanctuary. I did yoga and meditation and I prayed and had my discussion with God. I ended up, I think, maybe healthier than when I went in, in some ways.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Sunny Jacobs, your parents die in the Pan Am Flight 759 in Kenner, Louisiana. You lose touch with your children who were then in foster care. You’re writing back and forth with your then husband Jesse Tafero. And on May 4, 1990, he was executed. How did you survive after that point, and then talk about how your case turned around.

SONIA JACOBS: Well, I think the worst day of my entire life was when my parents died in the plane crash, because then, not only did my children become orphans again, but I became an orphan too, and there was no one to look out for me outside. And if you’re in prison, and especially if you’re on death row, you need someone to hang onto you from outside. The day that Jesse was executed, we were given a 10 minute phone call to say goodbye, and we told each other that we loved each other until the phone went dead. And then the officer that had escorted me to the phone call gave me a few moments to myself, and then I asked if she would bring me back to my cell, and she did. Actually, because Jesse’s execution was so horrible and so gruesome, I think everyone was sympathetic that day. It was just so horrible.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What happened, actually, Sunny, during his execution?

SONIA JACOBS: Well, you see, when Jesse was put in the electric chair and they pulled the switch, he didn’t die. Instead, his head caught fire. And they say, the witnesses that were there, say flames shot 2 feet in the air out of his head and smoke came out of the helmet. Instead of dying, he struggled against the restraints and they had to pull the lever three times before he was actually pronounced dead, and that it took thirteen and a half minutes for Jesse Tafero to die. And the reason was because they had substituted the natural sea sponge in the helmet, which was supposed to conduct the electricity properly, they switched it with for an artificial sponge, which didn’t conduct the electricity properly, and as a result, he caught fire. As his mother later said later, when Sister Helen Prejean was escorted her to the church that night, her son was burned at the stake. It was so horrible that where our daughter, who was then fifteen and a half years old, heard what happened to her father she tried to kill herself.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it was, what, two years later in 1992, nearly 17 years after you both were arrested, that the confession of the shooter was made and you were exonerated, though Jesse was killed?

SONIA JACOBS: Yes, about two and a half years after Jesse was executed, with the help of lawyers who worked for free, pro bono, and friends, one of whom you know, my friend Micki Dickoff who is a documentary filmmaker, because of their effort, we were able to uncover evidence that had been hidden for all those years, including the fact that the man who actually did the killing had confessed in front of other witnesses. As a result, I was then released.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break right now. When we come back, we’ll hear your new husband, your bridegroom’s story, Peter Pringle, and then hear about what the two of you are doing to gather as you continue to travel and speak out against the death penalty. Our guests are Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle. They are newlyweds, and they are both exonerees, they both survived death row. This is Democracy Now!, back in a minute.

STEVE EARLE: (Singing)

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle singing, “Christmas in Washington.” I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guests in Ireland are the newlyweds Peter Pringle and Sunny Jacobs. They got married in New York, flew home to Ireland, and are now telling us their story. Steve Earle, who we just played, was instrumental in the two of you coming together. But, Peter, before you tell us about Steve, tell us, if you would, your own story of how you ended up on death row and then free.

PETER PRINGLE: OK. Thank you. Very briefly, on July 7, 1980, there was a bank robbery in a town called Ballaghaderreen, in County Roscommon in Ireland, following which the escape car collided with a police car, there was an exchange of gunfire and two police officers were killed. The raiders split up, separated across country. One man was arrested that evening and another the following morning, and the third man was being pursued across country by the police. I had nothing whatever to do with it. I was in a different county in a different city at the time. The person they were chasing was chased right through the city where I was, which is the city where I am now, Galway, and he eluded them. So, they arrested me, fabricated evidence against me, and brought me before the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, which is a non-jury, politically established court, where I was convicted and sentenced to death. Upon the word of a police officer that after 43 hours of interrogation, I had uttered these words, “I know that you know I was involved, but on the advice of my solicitor, I am saying nothing and you have to prove it all away.” That is the sole evidence upon which I was convicted and sentenced to death. I should state that in the twelfth day of the trial—-the trial lasted for 34 days over six weeks, and in the twelfth day of the trial, a police officer who had attempted to arrest the culprit two days after the crime, had actually, was within arm’s reach of him and had spoken to him, but he ran away from him and escaped, he gave evidence in the trial and he was asked, had he seen the man again. He said he had, in fact, he was in the court. I was sitting in the dock. The police officer was asked to point out the man. He pointed up to a man standing in the back row of the public gallery and he said, that is him standing over there with his back to the partition. He pointed out the man in the public gallery. At which, the people standing beside this man all moved away from him. He was standing on his own like something you would see in a movie. But he was never stopped. He was allowed to leave the court, he wasn’t stopped or charged or anything else, and I was duly convicted. Sentenced to death. I spent six—-in Ireland, we didn’t have death row. I spent six months in the death cell, which would be the equivalent to deathwatch in the United States. My lawyers made an application for leave to appeal which put an automatic stay on the execution. The Court of Criminal Appeals refused that application for leave to appeal and set a new date for execution for the 8th of June, 1981. About 11 days before that, the President commuted the sentence on the advice of them and I was sentenced to forty years without any possibility of parole. I was put out into the prison population. I couldn’t possibly face forty years in prison and so I determined I would try to prove my innocence. I began to try and study law. In order to relax so I could ease my anger, my rage at what they had done to me, I began to teach myself the disciplines of yoga and meditation. It was those two disciplines that brought me through.

When, of course, Sunny and I met, we discovered we both used the same disciplines, 7,000 miles apart, without even knowing each other. That was another bond we had with each other. In January of 1992, I eventually opened my case in the high court in Dublin, on my own behalf, because I had no money and no lawyers, and I was escorted from the prison under armed escort and handcuffed, etc., and I offered my case there. In July of that year 1992, I won an order for discovery of the police papers in the case. Six months later when I got some of those documents, I found—-I was supplied with a photocopy of the notebook of the police officer who claimed I had made that statement. In his notebook, he had written in the alleged statement before his entry for the interrogation of which he claimed I said it. In any event, the case ran from January 1992 through to May 1995. Just before that, before that time in 1994, a human-rights lawyer offered me his help and I took it. In 1995 in May, the conviction was quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. The state asked for retrial. The court ordered a re-trial, I was sent back to prison on remand. The following day I was brought back to the Court of Criminal Appeal where I was given bail. A week later, the state dropped the case. So consequently, I received no compensation for damages whatsoever. When I was released on May 17, 1995, out of the Special Criminal Court onto the street, I had no money, I had no identification, no passport, no driving license, no Social Security number, no where to live, nothing. I didn’t even get my bus fare. But I had family and friends and they looked after me, and I survived.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Is it the case, Peter, that you were the last person who was sentenced to death in Ireland?

PETER PRINGLE: No, that’s not, actually. The media picked that one up. I was one of the last. There were—-let me see, now, there were I think three or four were sentenced to death after me. But all of those sentences were commuted as well.

SONIA JACOBS: But you were the only person who ever was released.

PETER PRINGLE: I was the only person in history of the state who got my conviction quashed, overturned, in a capital case. I did most of it on my own. I think I’m probably the only living person in Europe who has had his conviction overturned and released, had an exoneration from a death sentence. Three years after I came out of prison, and having gone through the difficulty of settling back into society—-which is very, very difficult—-I met with Steve Earle. Steve had been communicating with a man on death row in Texas named Jonathan Noble who asked Steve to witness his execution because he wanted one person there who didn’t hate him. Steve agreed to do that, and was so traumatized by what he saw, that he came back to Ireland to chill out a little and recover from that ordeal. While there, I was introduced to him. We exchanged our stories, we became friends. Consequently, when Sunny later was on the Journey of Hope, marching against the death penalty through Texas, people from the Irish section of Amnesty International were present and heard her speak. They invited her to come to Ireland the following year to speak at the annual general meeting of the Ireland section of Amnesty, which she agreed to. And then following on that, in Tennessee on another March, she met with Steve and told him she was coming to Ireland. He said to her, oh, you should talk to Peter Pringle, but he didn’t say why. When she got to Ireland the next year, and she spoke at a meeting in Dublin, somebody asked her if she’d spoken to me. She said, no. They gave her my number.

One day at home, I got a phone call from this American lady who said to me she wanted to speak to Peter Pringle. I said, that is me. She said she was Sunny Jacobs and was going to speak at a meeting in Galway the following Friday—-going to speak at a meeting the following Friday and if I wished to come along I was welcome. I asked her what she was going to speak about it she said, the death penalty. I said, well, yeah, I’m interested in that. At the time I was thinking, what does this woman know about the death penalty? So I went along anyway the following Friday with two friends. We were in the venue, which was a room over a pub at 1:00 in the day, and the people who had traveled with Sunny had gone to get lunch. But we, neither of us, like to eat before we speak about these matters in detail. So I was up in the room waiting for the event to happen when the door opened on the far side and this little lady walked in. I walked over to her and said, you must be Sunny Jacobs.

SONIA JACOBS: And I said, you must be Peter Pringle.

PETER PRINGLE: I heard her talk. I was mesmerized by her story. I was blown away by the horror of what had happened to her. I knew I had to speak with her again. I said that to her. But she told me she had to leave in an hour to go to court with Mary, who is the general secretary of Amnesty. So when she spoke to Mary, Mary was delighted I was going to take Sunny in charge and she transferred her back to me. A friend of mine in Galway loaned me his Mercedes car and packed us a lunch, a pack lunch.

SONIA JACOBS: A cheese lunch. We’re both vegetarians.

PETER PRINGLE: …at the time. And I drove her through Ireland and down to Cork, and as we were sitting in the car, in the car ferry crossing the river Shannon, she turned to me and she said, well, what is your interest in all this? And I said … this is the first time she had heard what my story was…and I said to her, I told her that I too had been sentenced to death and I had been exonerated. She said, and how did you get through? I said yoga and meditation. She said, wow, that is something, because that is what happened with her. So we traveled down, down to Cork together, sharing our story. At times laughing, at times crying, but very, very close with each other. She spoke at the meeting that evening. Amnesty booked us into a hotel, two separate rooms. We went over to the hotel and she came to my room and we sat down together. For three hours, we discussed forgiveness. And then she went back to her room. The following morning, I went off to…back home, to return the car. We kept in communication long distance. After 9/11, we decided that we really had to make a decision whether we were going to live together or not. Neither of us did not know if we could live with someone else because we have been on our own for so long. We opted for the west coast of Ireland. Sunny reversed what her ancestors did, she packed two bags, got rid of all her belongings in California and traveled back East and came to live with me in a little cottage by the sea on the west coast of Ireland. We live there now, a different cottage now, but we still live on the west coast of Ireland and we have a, we rent a little cottage with three and half acres. We have two dogs and two cats, a couple of hens, a couple of ducks, eight goats, and our garden. We grow our vegetables. We grow our potatoes. We have our eggs from our fowl. We milk the goats and she makes wonderful goat cheese. We try to be as self-sufficient as we can be, because of course we have no money. Neither of us got compensation. But we live a very good life there together.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet you decided to…you got married in New York, you were surrounded by—-of actually in your case, Sunny, the women who played you in The Exonerated like Brooke Shields and Marlo Thomas and Amy Irving. Talk about what you were just saying, Peter, when you are not on the west coast of Ireland, what you’re doing, in these last few minutes that we have.

PETER PRINGLE: What we do is we work with different human rights organizations like Amnesty, a group in London called Amicus, a wonderful group of people in Italy called The Community of Sant’Egidio…

SONIA JACOBS: The Journey of Hope in America.

PETER PRINGLE: The Journey of Hope.

SONIA JACOBS: The Seeds of Hope.

PETER PRINGLE: The Seeds of Hope is an Irish group in Ireland. But the Culture Project in New York was the not-for-profit theater organization that put on The Exonerated. The Culture Project, we knew that if…we could get married in New York very easy, and of course Sunny is a native of New York, so that kind of was nice, to do that. But we cannot afford to go to New York. We got a phone call from the Culture Project inviting us to come to their producers’ weekend to speak at that weekend and also for Sunny to present awards. So when they heard that we were looking to get married, they said, we will host your wedding. So that is what happened. They brought us to New York and put us up and hosted our wedding.

AMY GOODMAN: We have thirty seconds.

PETER PRINGLE: The Culture Project initiated a new award, which they called the Sunny award. They’ve given it out every year to people who shed a light, an artistic light, on injustice. And Sunny got the first award and she presented the other ones.

SONIA JACOBS: If I could just say one small thing, it’s that everyone out there can do their part. If you believe something is wrong, then do something about it whether it is write a letter, protest with a sign, go down to Wall Street and support them. Bring them sandwiches. Join an organization. Every person makes a difference. If you do something about what you believe, then it makes your life and everyone’s life better.

PETER PRINGLE: And if I may make a plug here, we each of us have a book written ready for any publisher who might be interested.

SONIA JACOBS: We need a publisher.

AMY GOODMAN: Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle—-

SONIA JACOBS: You have always been one of my heroes, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us. Happy holiday to everyone.

Keep the Death Penalty to Encourage Prison Reform? October 2, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

By Robert Meeropol
(about the author)
opednews.com, October 1, 2011

“Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of  despair over its fallibility would … tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most  Americans consider genuine justice.  It could encourage a more cynical  and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what  moral standards we should hold them to.  And while it would put an end  to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.”

Perhaps the Times published this piece so it could respond to it obliquely with an excellent editorial it published two days later which stated:  “The death penalty is grotesque and immoral and should be repealed.”

Lest some find the paragraph I quote above unclear, Mr. Douthat  appears to argue that rather than abolish the death penalty because we  can’t apply it fairly, we should take greater pains to apply it and  other criminal penalties in a more just fashion.

I find Mr. Douthat’s logic strained, even perverse.  Is he saying it  is worth risking a few unjust executions in order to improve the  public’s perception of our criminal justice system?

But in a way Mr. Douthat’s analysis is not an unreasonable response  to the tactics of much of the domestic anti-capital punishment movement, which is engaged primarily in case-by-case demonstrations that we might execute innocent defendants.  This strategy is being applied on a  state-by-state basis in those locales where anti-death penalty sentiment is strongest.  Abolitionists employing these tactics supplement their  arguments with proof of the system’s unfairness and excessive cost.

The initial words of Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as adopted by the United Nations, which is the first to enumerate a  specific right, read:  “Everyone has the right to life”.”  Simply put,  the death penalty is a human rights abuse.  This makes sense because if  our government has the right to extinguish our lives, it has the power  to deny us access to every other right listed in the Declaration.  The  rights set forth in Articles 4 through 30 won’t do you much good if you  aren’t alive to enjoy them.  While the domestic anti-capital punishment  movement is reluctant to make this argument because most Americans don’t agree with it, it is the one we must ultimately make and win if we wish to permanently rid our nation of the death penalty.

We must also consider the larger context capital punishment inhabits.  Our system disproportionately imprisons far too many people for far  too long.   Mr. Douthat exposed a basic truth, although he backed into  it.  Race and class discrimination permeates our entire criminal justice system.  Mr. Douthat poses this as an either/or proposition.  Either we eliminate capital punishment to avoid a wrongful execution or we reform our system to make it fairer.  Instead, we must do both, although I  think the word “reform” understates what is needed.  Commuting Troy  Davis’ death sentence – or that of any other wrongfully convicted death  row defendant – to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole  is not a just solution, but it is a result many in the mainstream  anti-death penalty movement in our country appear to be promoting.

Let us use Troy Davis’s wrongful execution as a rallying cry to  reassert our common humanity by demanding that our government stop its  cold-blooded extermination of our fellow human beings.  But we must also demand the end of the wholesale warehousing of over two million people  in the degrading conditions of our bloated prison industrial complex.


Robert Meeropol is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.  In 1953, when he was six years old, the United States Government executed his parents for “conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb.”For thirty years he has been a (more…)

Davis: Mercy On Their Souls September 22, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Racism.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

by Abby Zimet, www.commondreams.org

The state-sanctioned killing of Troy Davis has elicited much righteous grief, shame and anger; may it spark long-overdue change as well. His final, moving letter to supporters here. What you can do in his name here and here. The people’s historian Howard Zinn on the death penalty as “a kind of terror waged by the state, one death at a time, an attempt to instill fear and obedience in the population.”

“There are societies that do not pretend to be ‘civilized’—military dictatorships and totalitarian states—and execute their victims without ceremony. Then there are nations like the United States, whose claim to be civilized rests on the fact that its punishments are legitimized by a complex set of judicial procedures. This is called ‘due process,’ despite the fact that each step in this process is tainted by racial prejudice, class bias or political discrimination.” – Zinn in Killing People to ‘Send a Message’.

Troy DavisHere is the letter that Troy Davis penned to supporters:

I want to thank all of you for your efforts and dedication to Human Rights and Human Kindness, in the past year I have experienced such emotion, joy, sadness and never ending faith. It is because of all of you that I am alive today, as I look at my sister Martina I am marveled by the love she has for me and of course I worry about her and her health, but as she tells me she is the eldest and she will not back down from this fight to save my life and prove to the world that I am innocent of this terrible crime.

As I look at my mail from across the globe, from places I have never ever dreamed I would know about and people speaking languages and expressing cultures and religions I could only hope to one day see first hand. I am humbled by the emotion that fills my heart with overwhelming, overflowing Joy. I can’t even explain the insurgence of emotion I feel when I try to express the strength I draw from you all, it compounds my faith and it shows me yet again that this is not a case about the death penalty, this is not a case about Troy Davis, this is a case about Justice and the Human Spirit to see Justice prevail.

I refuse to believe that corporations are people until Texas executes one September 20, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Democracy, Humor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Troy Davis’s Execution Will Be a Judicial Lynching September 18, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Racism.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
Despite evidence that he’s innocent, Troy Davis faces
execution on September 21. With a culture that cheers Rick Perry’s execution
record, what chance does he have?
September 16, 2011  |  Amy Goodman

Death brings cheers these days in America.

In the most
recent Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Florida
, when CNN’s Wolf
Blitzer asked, hypothetically, if a man who chose to carry no medical insurance,
then was stricken with a grave illness, should be left to die, cheers of “Yeah!”
filled the hall. When, in
the prior debate, Governor Rick Perry was asked
about his enthusiastic use
of the death penalty in Texas, the crowd erupted into sustained applause and
cheers. The reaction from the audience prompted debate moderator Brian Williams
of NBC News to follow up with the question, “What do you make of that dynamic
that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew

That “dynamic” is why challenging the death sentence to be carried out
against Troy Davis by the state of Georgia on
21 September is so important. Davis has been on Georgia’s death row for close to
20 years, after being convicted of killing off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail
in Savannah. Since his conviction, seven of the nine non-police witnesses have
recanted their testimony, alleging police coercion and intimidation in obtaining
the testimony. There is no physical evidence linking Davis to the murder.

Last March, the US
supreme court ruled
that Davis should receive an evidentiary hearing, to
make his case for innocence. Several witnesses have identified one of the
remaining witnesses who has not recanted, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, as the
shooter. US District Judge William T Moore Jr refused, on a technicality, to
allow the testimony of witnesses who claimed that, after Davis had been
convicted, Coles admitted to shooting MacPhail. In his August
court order, Moore summarised
, “Mr Davis is not innocent.”

One of the jurors, Brenda Forrest, disagrees. She told CNN
in 2009, recalling the trial of Davis
, “All of the witnesses – they were
able to ID him as the person who actually did it.” Since the seven witnesses
recanted, she says: “If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on
death row. The verdict would be not guilty.”

Troy Davis has three major strikes against him. First, he is an African
American man. Second, he was charged with killing a white police officer. And
third, he is in Georgia.

More than a century ago, the legendary muckraking journalist Ida
B Wells
risked her life when she began reporting on the epidemic of
lynchings in the Deep South. She published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All
its Phases in 1892 and followed up with The Red Record in 1895, detailing
hundreds of lynchings. She wrote:

“In Brooks County, Georgia, 23 December, while this Christian country was
preparing for Christmas celebration, seven Negroes were lynched in 24 hours
because they refused, or were unable to tell the whereabouts of a colored man
named Pike, who killed a white man … Georgia heads the list of lynching

The planned execution of Davis will not be at the hands of an unruly mob, but
in the sterile, fluorescently lit confines of Georgia diagnostic and
classification prison in Butts County, near the town of Jackson. The state
doesn’t intend to hang Troy Davis from a tree with a rope or a chain – to hang,
as Billie Holiday sang, like a strange fruit:

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from
the poplar trees.”

The state of Georgia, unless its board of pardons and paroles intervenes,
will administer a lethal dose of pentobarbital. Georgia
is using this new execution drug
because the federal Drug Enforcement
Administration seized its supply of sodium thiopental last March, accusing the
state of illegally importing the poison.

“This is our justice system at its very worst,” said Ben Jealous, president
of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Amnesty International has called on the state board of pardons and paroles to
commute Davis’ sentence. “The board stayed Davis’ execution in 2007, stating
that capital punishment
was not an option when doubts about guilt remained,” said Larry Cox, executive
director of Amnesty International USA. “Since then, two more execution dates
have come and gone, and there is still little clarity, much less proof, that
Davis committed any crime. Amnesty International respectfully asks the board to
commute Davis’ sentence to life and prevent Georgia from making a catastrophic

It’s not just the human rights groups the
parole board should listen to. Pope Benedict XVI and Nobel peace prize laureates
President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others,
also have called for clemency. Or the board can listen to mobs who cheer for

• Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column