November 30 is World Day of Cities for Life - is Your City Participating?

On Monday, over 1000 cities around the world will participate in "World Day of Cities for Life," which honors the first time that the death penalty was abolished by a government -- on November 30, 1786, by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.  Organized by the Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio of Rome, participation is growing steadily: in 2005, only 300 cities worldwide were participants and now, four years later, the total exceeds 1150. 

Cities for Life Day involves each community flooding lights upon a local monument that in some way symbolizes the effort to abolish the death penalty.  For example, in Rome the Colosseum is illuminated; in Barcelona they are lighting up the Cathedral Square. 

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Kentucky Just Stopped Executing People Today - But It's Temporary

Today, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a ruling that no one is going to be executed in the State of Kentucky until things are done by the book regarding the lethal injection killing method.  The high court set no deadline on when capital punishment might resume in Kentucky, either.  Its formal opinion is already published online at the court's official web site.

The story starts with Ralph Baze

Ralph Baze sits on Kentucky's Death Row after being convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murder of Sheriff Steve Bennett and Deputy Arthur Briscoe of Powell County, Kentucky, back in 1992 while the lawmen were trying to arrest him.  (Baze unsuccessfully urged self-defense.)   After his conviction, Baze joined with fellow Death Row inmate Thomas Clyde Bowling, Jr. in a constitutional fight.

Baze and Bowling both argued by appeal that execution of someone with the three drug "cocktail" established by Kentucky law (and used here in Florida, as described in our earlier series) constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment. 

Baze v. Rees (Baze's appeal) was heard by the United States Supreme Court, and in April 2008, that court ruled that the three drug cocktail did not violate the constitution.  Ginsburg and Souter dissented.

Baze did not stop there.  He then urged a state appeal (joining with Bowling) challenging state procedure, and the Kentucky Supreme Court has heard him. 

What the Kentucky Supreme Court Ruled Today

In today's opinion, the state high court has found that the legal steps that are taken when Kentucky puts a condemned man (or woman) to death through the use of its three drug cocktail have to be specified -- spelled out -- in a state regulation.  

Writing for the majority, Justice Abramson states, ""[t]his court cannot ignore the publication and public hearing requirements set forth in Kentucky statutes."  The opinion then orders the Kentucky Department of Corrections "...to adopt as an administrative regulation all portions of the protocol implementing the lethal injection statute...." 

This will take time.  An adminstrative regulation doesn't just get voted upon by some group -- due process requires much more than that.  What the Kentucky Supreme Court has done is to require the agency to write a regulation and then formally debut it as proposed law.  Then, the public gets a say in the matter as there is a set amount of time for public contributions on the language of the proposed regulation.  Things are discussed, edits may happen.  And only then is the proposal taken to Kentucky's Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee, an arm of the state legislature that votes to adopt/reject the proposal.

Ohio First State in the Nation to Change Lethal Injection Execution Method to Single Drug - What Are the Consequences?

Last week, the State of Ohio announced that it was changing its method of execution from a lethal injection involving three drugs (sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride) to a single injection of the drug sodium thiopental

Ohio changes to a single-drug form of execution after its failed execution of Romell Broom on September 15, 2009

You'll recall the travesty of Mr. Broom's attempted capital punishment -- as we described here, Romell Broom suffered for two and one-half hours on the gurney that day:

Romell Broom was sentenced to die for the rape and murder of Tryna Middleton by the State of Ohio and last Tuesday, Mr. Broom was strapped to a gurney and his execution by lethal injection began. 

The 2+ Hour Failed Execution

Except they couldn't find a vein in which to insert the needle.  They tried his arms.  They tried his legs.  Broom lay there, tied to the table by long leather straps covering the length of his body.  Imagine this being done to you.

Broom lay there for OVER TWO HOURS while lab techs tried to kill him.  They failed.  Broom went back to his Death Row cell, and his execution was "rescheduled."  The Governor of the State of Ohio was contacted about the problem and he ordered a one week "postponement."


According to the New York Times, Broom "sobbed with pain".  And afterwards, not only did Ohio Governor Strickland order that Romell Broom's execution be stopped, but the Ohio federal court issued a stay of his execution after hearing Broom's attorneys argue that a second try at executing Broom would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.  

The Consequences of Ohio's New Single Drug Execution Method

Proponents are arguing that this single, massive dose of sodium thiopental is merciful and that it's going to be the NextBigThing for death penalty proponents, since its success will hamper constitutional arguments against execution by lethal injection under the three-drug approach. 

And those are serious and substantive arguments, as we've outlined here in a three-part series of articles.  No one can truly say that a paralyzed person, laying on that gurney, isn't suffering because they are incapable of communicating what they are experiencing.  The "drug cocktail" is simply horrific.

Ohio is so confident in its new execution method -- the same type of killing method that vets use on dogs and cats -- that it's planning on having the new protocol in place by the end of this month, and there's talk that Ohio will want to try out its new One-Drug Injection procedure on Kenneth Biros, who is scheduled for execution on December 8, 2009, subject to a temporary stay. 

What has yet to be determined, however, is how this massive dose of this single drug will truly work on a human being.  What works on dogs and cats might not be as merciful, fast, and painfree on humans.  We simply don't know, and undoubtedly there will be medical testimony with the appropriate medical experts providing their opinions on this procedure before Ken Bios or anyone else is subject to Ohio's new killing option.  Or there should be.

And, what about if the Ohio one drug option doesn't work as swiftly and cleanly as its proponents suggest it will?  Well, they've got a backup -- two more drugs that would then be injected into the condemned, there on the gurney:  the executor will shoot in massive amounts of  hydromorphone and midalzolam.   

None of This Makes a Bit of Difference in the Broom Situation

With Ohio's big announcement, death penalty proponents are gleefully rubbing their hands together at the thought that the remaining 35 states using lethal injection as their primary execution method can now circumvent all number of death penalty appeals based upon the cruel and inhuman nature of the three-drug cocktail, just by adopting the Ohio One Drug method. 

Well, it's not as simple as that.  First, this method needs to be vetted by medical experts before a condemned person is used as a guinea pig here, nevermind those back-up syringes filled with hydromophone and midazolam. 

Second, has no one stopped to think that the answer is more complex than this?  Romell Broom suffered great agony on September 15th not because of the type of drug used upon him, or the number of drugs selected to be injected into his body, but because they could never find a way to successfully insert the needle.

Two Points to Ponder

So, point one, the Ohio One Drug "innovation" doesn't resolve the Romell Broom travesty and it's fascinating to watch Death Penalty proponents distract themselves from the cruelty of that day in their excitement over this new find. 

Point two:  is anyone out there thinking that executing men and women in the same way that that vets euthanize animals (even if they are beloved pets) is just plain wrong?  When did we forget about human dignity?

Former District Attorney Sam Milsap Admits "I Made a Mistake" in Death Penalty Prosecution - 16 Years after Execution

People wonder why I am so adamently opposed to the death penalty, and then stories like this appear in the media and I, in turn, wonder how anyone can support capital punishment. 

Sam Milsap's Mea Culpa

Sam Milsap is a seasoned criminal lawyer with over 30 years experience, and for a long while he served as the head District Attorney of Bexar County, Texas (better known to most of us as the location of the city of San Antonio).  Last week, Mr. Milsap was a guest speaker in Topeka, Kansas, where the annual meeting of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty was being held.  And during his speech to this formidable group, Sam Milsap did a brave thing.  He admitted he was wrong.

Milsap explained from the podium that back in the early 1990s, he was in charge of prosecuting a young man named Ruben Montoya Cantu.  In his zeal to win -- something that every criminal defense attorney recognizes in ambitious, driven DAs -- Sam Milsap charged ahead in his case, and with only the testimony of one single eyewitness, he obtained a guilty verdict and a sentence of death for Mr. Cantu in the murder of Pedro Gomez. 

That's right.  No physical evidence.  None.  No admission of guilt from Cantu.  None.  Only the finger-pointing from one man -- Juan Moreno, who had been shot alongside Gomez as they were being robbed.   (Nevermind that the co-defendant said that 17 year old Ruben Cantu wasn't there at the time.)

Much has been written about the weakness of eyewitness testimony, so it should come as a surprise to no one when years later, Moreno changed his mind.  That's right:  the eyewitness recanted.

Or, as Milsap so eloquently described it, " ' 20 years later, my star witness says, ' I lied.'"

The Danger of Zealous Prosecutors in Death Penalty Cases

Sam Milsap must be given his due for not hanging out a "gone fishing" sign, but instead using his time and energy to do things like appear at the KCADP national conference to tell the story of how his vigorous efforts put a 17 year old to death by lethal execution in Texas.  That is a good thing, and every district attorney in the country should hear what Sam Milsap has to say.

Meanwhile, all of us must be aware of the temptations of prosecutors everywhere -- to win their case.  To acheive a personal victory, to pursue a reputation as an advocate as well as doing the job that is assigned to them.  In our criminal justice system, prosecutors have the role of proving up a case against a criminal defendant -- and if capital punishment is on the table, it's their job to try and prove its applicability in certain cases.

As Sam Milsap's story teaches, the danger here is that when a prosecutor makes a serious mistake, and the death penalty is involved, the consequences are too high.  That teenager in San Antonio is dead today, and no one can fix that -- although, from the sound of Mr. Milsap's speech last weekend, no one would like the opportunity to do so more than he. 

Our Prediction that California's Billy Joe Johnson Would Help the Fight Against the Death Penalty Proves True

Right before Halloween, we posted about the new Death Penalty Information Center revelation that focusing solely on a state's budget bottom line, capital punishment should be outlawed because it just costs too much -- and how Billy Joe Johnson's request to be sentenced to death in California only added fuel to that fire.  (Billy Joe wanted death because the digs at California's Death Row are so much better than those for lifers.)

Well, looks like that October prediction was right and Billy Joe Johnson is doing a lot to help the cause of Abolishing the Death Penalty. 

The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog is pointing to Billy Joe Johnson in California, and publishing a quote from Johnson's attorney that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times -- Billy Jo isn't asking for Death Row because "...' he thinks conditions wiil be better, they are better," explains defense counsel Michael Molfetta. 

The Los Angeles Times has a lengthy feature article that actually goes into the details surrounding Billy Joe Johnson's decision (and yes, his request was granted and he has been sentenced to death by the State of California).   According to the LA Times, on California's Death Row:

1.  inmates get single cells, they don't have to share a two bunk cell

2. their cells are bigger than the standard maximum-security cells for lifers

3. inmates get better telephone access

4. they are allowed "contact visits"  by themselves, although the visit is in a see-through plexiglass booth (lifers have to visit in a communal hall, no one on one contact)

5.  they get breakfast and dinner served to them in their cells

6.  Lunch is served in the exercise yard, so they get to go outside daily

7.  Death Row inmates are allowed to visit with other Death Row inmates during the lunch hour

8.  Death Row inmates get to have TVs, CD Players, and the like in their cells

9. While other inmates are limited to six cubit feet of personal property, this doesn't apply to California Death Row inmates

10.  They get to wear jeans and chambray shirts

This description of life on California's Death Row is getting lots of attention -- all because Billy Joe Johnson's request has taken flight.  The prison authorities have good reasons for each of the list's purported "benefits" -- for example, Death Row inmates get more than 6 cubic feet of personal property space because their cases are so voluminous, they need more square footage than that for all the paperwork that their defense requires.  Similarly, they get more lenient phone rules than the usual inmate because they are literally fighting for their lives and there are times when communication with their counsel by phone is immediately needed and legally vital. 

Still, proponents of the Death Penalty may look upon this list with outrage and think that Billy Joe Johnson is somehow working the system by asking to die.  And, if that enables the Death Penalty Information Center's study on costs to get more footing, great. 

Because the goal is to end the death penalty, and if capital punishment is stopped for no other reason that it costs too much, fine.  The goal is to stop the State form killing people, period.

And Now, All Eyes are On the Governor - Will Virginia's Tim Kaine Stop the Execution of John Muhammad, the DC Sniper?

Virginia executes more people in this country than any other state than Texas, so the statistics seem to sway us toward a prediction that Governor Tim Kaine will allow the upcoming execution of John Muhammad, the DC Sniper. 

And Kaine is the only barrier betweeen John Muhammad and death. 

That's because the United States Supreme Court officially declined to hear Mr. Muhammad's appeal yesterday -- and what is unusual about that is they did so long before anyone expected them to do so.  As Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor explained in a joint statement authored by Stevens, under standard operating procedure the high court would have taken this matter under consideration during its November 24th Justices' conference. 

By declining to stay the execution in order to maintain that SOP Justice Stevens wrote, "...we have allowed Virginia to truncate our deliberative process on a matter -- involving a death row inmate -- that demands the most careful attention." 

Importantly, the Justices' statement points out a crucial problem in this case, something of which we all need to be aware:  Virginia scheduled John Muhammad's execution before all of his legal avenues had been exhausted. 

That's right -- Virginia scheduled a man for death before the legal processes had been completed, those legal safeguards that are in place to insure that no legal errors had been made.  To quote the Statement, " '[t]his case highlights once again the perversity of executing inmates before their appeals process has been fully concluded."

Perversity indeed. 

We're watching, Governor Kaine.

Death Penalty on Film: Capote (2005)

This past week, the film Capote (2005) was shown on television -- and while the name suggests that the movie covers the life of famed author Truman Capote, that's not the case.  What the movie focuses upon is Capote's involvement with two men who were executed by the  State of Kansas for the killings of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas back in the late 1950s.

For those - like me - who are interested in how the death penalty is presented to America not only in the media and in our legislation but in our popular culture, I found the movie to be important. 

Not only does it provide an excellent perspective on how the trial and appellate process can cover years and years as the case winds its way through both the state and federal systems, but it reveals so much about the prisoners themselves.  How they spend years and years in small cells, a punishment in and of itself -- and in Perry Smith's case, the movies also gives food for thought about how a small boy could grow up to end his life by a hangman's noose.

And the execution of Perry Smith is shown in Capote.  In the 1960s, Kansas still executed prisoners by hanging.  You see the entirety of the process, and for those who wonder about those last moments - the film strives for accuracy.  There is the harness, there is the hood placed over the prisoner's head (for the benefit of the witnesses many argue, as opposed to the condemned), there is the sound of the latch being thrown and the body falling down, swaying in the open air. 

It's a memorable scene in a memorable film. 

And, as for hanging as a form of capital punishment, we don't see that today.  Today, only two states still allow for hanging and then, only as an option the lethal injection.  (That's Delaware and Washington.) 

Why not?  Hanging someone to kill them is tricky business.  If the state doesn't do its math right, calculating the weight of the individual and comparing it against the length of the drop and the strength of the rope, then the condemned does not die by a swift break of the neck but instead slowly suffocates -- which is said to be a very messy and painful process. 

In Capote (2005), the execution goes smoothly and Truman Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) watches without a word and then walks away.  Afterwards, he completes In Cold Blood -- a telling of the Clutter killings, the investigation and arrest of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, following the judicial process through their deaths.   

And, of course, In Cold Blood is a must read for those dealing with the issue of capital punishment in this country -- and watching Capote, as this important book is being created, makes you want to pull that important book off the shelf and re-read it.  Which I, for one, am going to do.

In Depth Look at the Law: Secrecy in China - Successfully Hiding the Truth About Executions for Profit from the World

Supplying the International Demand for Human Transplant Organs is Big Business in China

The demand for transplantable organs is the main reason why organ procurement is so pervasive in China. [204] It is common knowledge that high-paying customers will receive a prompt organ transplant in China. [205]Former transplant patients have reported that they were expected to hand out "red envelopes" filled with money to every doctor they saw.[206]

The money is shared with both prison and court officials. [207]It has been reported that foreign nationals pay upwards of $200,000 for an organ transplant performed in China, using Chinese donors. [208] Sadly, there is also a reported case where a transplant recipient died because the essential post-operation care and treatment ceased because the patient ran out of money.[209]

Due to the high demand for organs, the large number of death-row prisoners, the improved medical technology, and the huge profits, selling organs from executed prisoners in China will continue. [210] The situation is exacerbated because many of the people who are key participants in the harvesting of the organs are poorly paid prison and hospital administrators.[211]

Executions for Profit Have Extra Benefit -- Intimidation and Control of the Citizenry

China's organ procurement from the bodies of executed prisoners is not only a lucrative money-maker, it is also a method to coerce and intimate the general population into submission of government control.  [212] Actually, since the discovery of the lucrative organ transplant market, the number of crimes punishable by death has increased.[213]

Chinese web bulletins boards have reported information discussing the sale and corruption of the "organ business." [214] Chinese websites advertising organ transplants openly admit to obtaining their organs from executed prisoners. [215] One website specifically targeting foreigners announced on the front page that viscera or soft interior organs including brain, lungs, and heart could be found immediately. [216] This website also thanked the support of the Chinese government, specifically naming the Supreme Demotic Court. [217]

Secrecy in the Chinese government

China has maintained an air of secrecy concerning the sale of organs harvested from executed prisoners, concealing the transfer of profits. [218] China strove to keep the 1984 order on the use of prisoner cadavers confidential in order to avoid international backlash. [219] Even official figures regarding death sentences and executions in China are kept secret from the public and foreigners. [220] Additionally, international human rights organizations are not permitted to visit prisoners in China. [221] Until recently, the Chinese government emphatically denied the legal procurement of organs from Chinese prisoners condemned to death.[222]

The only people that would be present at the scene of an organ harvesting are the victim and the perpetrators. [223] No bystanders would be allowed to witness the event. [224] Afterward, no body would be found, and no autopsy would be conducted. [225] The body would be cremated, and the evidence vanished. [226] The operating room would be left like any other empty operating room. [227] Cremation of the body prevents any evidence from surfacing regarding the harvesting of organs. [228] In addition, any wills created by condemned prisoners are subject to official censorship by the government.[229]

The Supreme People's Court issued a secret regulation concerning a prisoner's last will and testament that states, "Those parts which are slanderous in nature or which make reactionary statements are not to be handed over to the person's family . . . sections complaining about grievances or alleged injustices are not to be passed on to the person's family." [230] When one executed prisoner's brother asked to see the documentation of his brother's consent to donate his organs, the Chinese officials would not give him the information. [231] Furthermore, the government warned the brother that if he did not keep silent, he and his family would face retaliation.[232]

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US Supreme Court Heard Oral Arguments Yesterday in Wood v. Allen, reviewing Actions of Defense Counsel in Sentencing Phase

Representing clients facing the sentence of dying by the government's hand for crimes they have allegedly committed is what I do.  And, while I represent clients in both phases of a death penalty case, I am particularly known for my work in representing defendants during the sentencing phase. 

So, I'm watching Wood v. Allen with particular interest as it winds its way through review by the highest court in the land.

By way of background, a man named Holly Wood was convicted in an Alabama court of killing his girlfriend.   He was sentenced to die for this act.  Mr. Wood was represented by defense counsel, and Mr. Wood is now arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial because one of his trial lawyers failed to introduce key evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. 

What was that crucial evidence?  It was evidence of a mitigating factor to be considered in Mr. Wood's sentencing -- that he was mentally retarded. 

Holly Wood had three lawyers during the trial, but like many death penalty cases the defense duties were divided, and it's uncontested here that the lawyer responsible for the sentencing phase of the case was a novice.   And here is where things get complicated.

As Mr. Wood's case manuevered through the waters of the state appellate process, his appellate counsel argued that this novice attorney did not provide adequate representation -- and all the state reviewing courts failed to agree.  Instead, they held that Wood's more experienced counsel intentionally withheld the mental retardation evidence as part of their overall trial strategy. 

Entering the federal appellate system under a writ for habeas corpus under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the federal district court went Wood's way and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, opining that that the AEDPA limits review to "...whether there is evidence to support the state courts' findings" and the Alabama court's fact finding was reasonable since Wood failed to show that the defense decision not to present the evidence was not strategic.   Of course, there was a strong dissent which wisely pointed out that the Eleventh Circuit opinion was based upon nothing but "pure speculation" that not presenting key mitigating evidence was a "strategic decision."

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