Stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani Update: Her Death Penalty Defense Attorney Is Missing, His Wife and Brother-in-Law Held

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is the woman we wrote about last week -- she faces the horrible, horrible death sentence of stoning in Iran.  Her crime?  Adultery.  Evidence?  None.  Trials? Two (no double jeopardy protection there).

Was the Stoning Carried Out?

There have been no news reports since our post to confirm that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has indeed been executed.  Last we knew, the Mullahs had reported that they were not going to respect any stays offered by other local authorities, and the stoning was said to occur within a 24 hour time frame. 

And by stoning, again we mean she will be buried in sand up to her chest and then stones - not too big and not too small - will be thrown at her until she dies.  (They don't want her to die too quickly.) 

Where is Her Lawyer?  He's Gone Missing.

We don't know if Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is alive or dead right now.  And, according to Amnesty International, we also don't know where her defense lawyer is. He's gone missing.

Mohammad Mostafaei (shown above) was reported to have been interrogated at Evin prison in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday.  Amnesty International believes he was released, asked to return, and never seen again. 

Mostafaei's Wife and Brother-in-Law Held Without a Lawyer

Meanwhile, the defense lawyer's wife, Fereshteh Halimi, and his brother-in-law, Farhad Halimi, have been taken by authorities and held without legal counsel. 

Mostafaei Is Another Death Penalty Defense Lawyer Who Blogs

Interestingly, Mr. Mostafaei blogs.  That's right.  He blogs in Iran.  And, apparently he posted something on his blog last Saturday after he left the prison interrogation, as well as updating his Facebook account.  On Facebook, he predicted he would be arrested.

Check out his blog (use Google Translate): looks like it's been shut down. 

Our prayers are with Mr. Mostafaei and his family -- and we are honored to count him as one of our brethren.  Please help spread the word of this continuing injustice.  To learn more about what you can do, visit theActivism Center at Amnesty International's website. 


Dear Pavan -- My Letter to a British Student about the American Death Penalty

Recently, I received a very nice letter from a student in Great Britain who was studying capital punishment - specifically, the American Death Penalty.  She asked my take on things, generally speaking, and I was honored by the query and proud to be able to reply.  Having taken some of the language of my response from this blog, I thought it only fitting to share with its readers what I sent to Pavan last week.

Dear Pavan,

Thank you so much for writing me and asking my thoughts on the death penalty, as an American death penalty criminal defense attorney. I’m honored to be asked, and I hope that the following is helpful to you:

I've been practicing criminal law for a long time, and still I get asked on a weekly basis, why DO I defend what some call "the worst of the worst"? Just why is it that I defend those people that have been described on more than one occasion (and by more than one prosecutor) as the worst of the worst?

First, a word about what I do. I'm a private practice criminal defense attorney who focuses upon death penalty cases. In Florida, where I live and do most of my work, death penalty cases have two lawyers, known as first chair and second chair.

As first chair in a death penalty case, my job is concerned with the guilt finding of the defendant - the focus is judgment. As second chair, my job is to convince the jury to spare the life of the person if they are convicted – the focus is mercy. Here, arguing for mercy is legally known as "mitigation," a specialized area. Within that area, I have further specialized in mental health aspects of mitigation.

I represent young and old, the unknown and the infamous. Most recently, I was given extensive media coverage as the initial death-penalty qualified attorney in the Casey Anthony case. (I withdrew from the representation a long while back.)

"How can you represent those people?"

There are all the usual stock answers. "I am defending the Constitution." "The death penalty is not a cost effective solution." "There is no deterrent value." "As for retribution, is a life in a cage worse than death?" "The system is not perfect, and innocent people have been sentenced to death." "Death row is overwhelmingly populated by the poor and disadvantaged."

And all of these answers are true, but they don't tell you the whole story.

Fundamentally, I do this because I want to understand. Why did this happen? How did this person arrive at my figurative doorstep, accused of a horrendous crime? What are the factors, the background, the events that led this person here?

Every person has a story. There is always some underlying common humanity in even those convicted of the most brutal crimes. It is my job to bring these mitigating factors to the jury, to shed light on the darkest heart and most disturbed mind.

To help us all to understand WHY. 

Continue Reading...

China Death Vans at an End? China Announces Cut in Crimes Carrying Death Penalty

Last year, we had a series of in-depth articles posted over several weeks discussing capital punishment in China, and the horrific reality of the China Death Vans.  Please take the time to read thru this information -- information that we found was simply not covered to any great extent in the mainstream media.

China Death Vans and the Harvesting of Human Organs for the Global Transplant Black Market

Fueling the China death penalty is the demand for human transplant organs around the world.  Mobile vans literally roam the Chinese countryside, efficiently harvesting these organs from men and women grabbed off rural roadways and in village squares.  (This is documented, read our series for details.)

This week, China Announces Limiting the Crimes Carrying Death Penalty

Beijing's China Daily now reports that China will be cutting back on the number of death penalty crimes  -- and may abolish capital punishment for anyone already convicted who is over 70 years old.  A draft of the new legislation is reported to be submitted sometime in August to China's Parliament. 

Details on what crimes are being taken off the death penalty list were not found in the news release; however, it is known that 68 different crimes carry the death penalty in China right now -- and 44 of them are for non-violent acts. 

Will this really happen? What About the Human Transplant Organ Market?

Right now, the legislation is still in draft form, with no clear language and no clear date on when it will be voted upon by the National People's Congress of China. 

Based upon the information we've gathered and shared, perhaps the real question is:  how will the black market demand for human transplant organs be met if the China Death Vans are no long a major supplier? 

Let us watch and pray.

World View of the Death Penalty: Pakistan Death Penalty Charge Against Facebook founders, Writer Alan Shadrake Charged In Singapore - Not Free to Leave, Iran Stoning To Occur Today Without Evidence

World news reports regarding attitudes toward the death penalty in other countries is downright frightening.  As much as we fight against injustice in the United States, the news reports coming out of Pakistan, Iran, and Singapore today only serve to reiterate how the American system of justice is much more merciful and compassionate than so many other jurisdictions on this planet. 

Facebook Founders charged with Death Penalty Crimes in Pakistan for "Draw Muhammad Day"

At first, this seems to be something from Will Ferrell's Funny or Die series, or maybe another Ashton Punk, or even some twisted publicity attempt for that new Facebook movie.  No.  The ugly truth is that a Pakistani High Court judge has indeed brought in the police after an a Pakistani attorney named Muhammad Azhar Siddique filed documentation with the court requesting a "First Information Report (FIR)," legalese for asking that that a criminal investigation be ordered.

In his application, Mr. Siddique allegedly asserts that Facebook principals have violated Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which states:

"Use of derogatory remark etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet, whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable for fine."

What's the brouhaha?  Back in May, Facebook sponsored "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day," when a  27-year-old Canadian woman created a Facebook page joining a Seattle cartoonist in an online protest of cable TV's Comedy Central's decision to censor an episode of "South Park," where the Prophet Muhammad was drawn wearing a bear costume. 

After the Royal Canadian Mounted Police visited the Canadian Facebook page administrator's home, telling her of possible reprisals and death threats against her, she took their advice and removed the page.  The FBI, likewise, visited the Seattle cartoonist, giving similar advice to her -- and she likewise took down her online protest and has taken herself out of the public eye.  The names of both the Seattle cartoonist and the Canadian Facebook page administrator appear on hit lists. 

But this must not be enough, to put names on assassination lists. 

There are reports that Pakistan's Deputy Attorney General has begun an investigation into Facebook Founders Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes, and Dustin Moskovitz, as well as the German woman who initiated the "Draw Muhammad" contest under a pseudonym.  Attorney Sidiqque has told media that he expects the Pakistani officials to enlist the aid of Interpol in coordinating the arrest of these four individuals.  Additionally, Pakistan’s United Nations representative has purportedly asked to escalate the issue in the UN General Assembly. 

Singapore Writer Arrest and Iran Stoning after the jump....  

Continue Reading...

Texas Chief Justice Keller Gets Hand Slap, Michael Richard Still Died Too Soon

Yesterday, Sharon Keller learned the discipline that she would be receiving from the Texas Judicial Commission after a review of her actions as Chief Justice of Texas' highest criminal court on the day that Michael Richard was executed by lethal injection.(Read the ruling in its entirety here.)

It's a story we've been following for a long while now, waiting to see what would happen to Justice Keller after a shocking series of events that Execution Day afternoon. 

Almost three years have past since Sharon Keller's infamous response, "the Clerk's office closes at 5," and around a year since a fact-finding trial judge determined that nothing should happen to Justice Keller - that the mere "public humiliation she has surely suffered" was more than sufficient sanctioning of her conduct.

What Justice Sharon Keller Did on Michael Richard's Execution Day 

Justice Sharon Keller, as you will recall (the day's events are summarized in the Commission's Ruling), went home early on the day that (1) the United States Supreme Court announced it was going to be reviewing the constitutionality of lethal injection method of killing in Baez; and (2) Michael Richard was scheduled to die, by lethal injection. 

Justice Keller went home to meet a repairman.

Attorneys for Richard had literally hours to file the paperwork with the Texas court to stop the execution, but it's safe to assume - in fact, now there's been testimony - that the Texas high court was expecting the filing.  There was already an execution day procedure set in place at the court, and another Justice was waiting to get the paperwork. 

No one expected the Texas court to substantively change the state opinion on Richard's conviction and pending execution.  All that was needed was the Texas court's denial, so that the defense attorneys could substantiate to the U.S. Supreme Court that state remedies had been exhausted.  It was almost a rubber stamp of the documents, once they actually got filed with the Texas court. 

As detailed in the 19-page ruling issued by the Texas Commission, instead of that execution day procedure being followed, the clerk called Justice Keller at home when the attorneys had technological problems and called to say they'd need to file shortly after 5 o'clock (not unheard of, this happens all over the country).  Instead of following the internal court execution day procedure -- i.e., telling the clerk to check with the Justice on stand-by -- Justice Keller issued her Red Queen directive that we've all heard about for so long.

Sharon Keller Keeps Her Job, Gets a Hand Slap

And for this, she gets a hand slap.  Technically, she's received a "PUBLIC WARNING" from the Commission.  Keller could have lost her job, been removed from the bench, but she wasn't. 

Within the ruling, which deserves reading in its entirety, Keller is found to have failed to give "...Richard access to open courts or the right to be heard according to law," which seems serious enough.  But nothing follows.  Almost nothing.   

Tactful language skirts around the reality that the man died. 

The bottom line here is that in hindsight, we know that lethal injection would be found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and that Michael Richard's execution probably would have gone forward (this is Texas, remember) within the year to 18 months following September 25, 2007.  Or maybe not.  Maybe Michael Richard would be alive today. 

We absolutely know that Michael Richard and his loved ones were denied those days and months between September 2007 and whenever he might have been ultimately executed because of the cavalier actions of Chief Justice Sharon Keller. 

The Imbalance Continues

Today, Sharon Keller has kept her job and experienced some social discomfort.  Or as the fact-finder described it, some "public humiliation." 

How do we balance that against the time period of living that was stolen from Michael Richard?  How can we? 

New Florida Innocence Commission Gets Its First Executive Director Today: Lester Garringer Jr. Appointed

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, 56, began his two-year term on July 1, 2010, and his first order of business was to create the Florida Innocence Commission, which will "conduct a comprehensive study of the causes of wrongful conviction and of measures to prevent such convictions."  (For the complete enacting language, read the Administrative Order here.)

Today, Lester A. Garringer, Jr. was named to act as the Commission's first Executive Director.  In the Court's news release detailing the appointment, Garringer's credentials are detailed - they include serving as a Monroe County judge (1977 - 1980) and for the past 7 years, serving as staff attorney to the Supreme Court Criminal Court Steering Committee and the Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases.(read the news release here). Conspicuous by its absence in his resume was an extended amount of time spent in the actual defense of criminal defendants facing conviction. 

What Will the Florida Innocence Commission Accomplish?

With a budget of around $300,000, the FIC is charged not with implementing change so much as studying the reasons behind wrongful convictions in the State of Florida.  One can only hope that part of that money will not be a re-hash of the numerous studies already done regarding the lack of funding for indigent defense in Florida. 

The Cost of Indigent Defense Must Be Evaluated as Part of the Wrongful Conviction Research

Of particular importance is the need to acknowledge the studies already undertaken on the state of indigent defense for capital cases in the State of Florida.  Obviously, there is a logical tie between a lack of funding for indigent defense and the likelihood of a wrongful conviction.  Nowhere is there a more critical risk for wrongful conviction than when the death penalty is at issue. 

Prior Studies on the Underlying Issues - Budget, etc. 

It's not too difficult to look at the current criminal defense system in this country and know that lack of funding for constitutionally-mandated appointed counsel, and budgeting for their corresponding defense expenses, is one of the major factors behind wrongful convictions of innocent men and women.  The American Bar Association, for example, has spent considerable time and expense analyzing these issues on a state by state basis -- and continues to do so.   

Cantero & Schlakman's Fall 2009 Opinion

Just last fall former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero III and Mark Schlakman, former senior program director at the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University, wrote an opinion piece describing how they took an American Bar Association two-year study of Florida's death penalty system in 2006 and compared it to the realities of the system today

Their findings?  The current situation is "abyssmal."

Let us hope that the newly formed Florida Innocence Commission acts in a powerful and purposeful way in proactively instituting positive change in our state's criminal justice system.  We already are too well aware of the ways in which the system is failing ... and how an increased indigent defense budget would help solve so many problems, including the likelihood of wrongful convictions in this state. 


Indigent Defense Crisis in Texas: California Public Defender Tapped to Head New "Office of Capital Writs"

California attorney Brad Levenson, a federal public defender, was revealed this week to be the new head of a brand new agency over in Texas: the Office of Capital Writs.  Levenson starts work on September 1st.

Texas' Office of Capital Writs is an Attempt to Solve the Indigent Defense Crisis - In Part

In 2009, the Texas Legislature created (and by that we mean, of course, set aside money in the budget) for the Office of Capital Writs after things became obvious that the indigent defense being provided appealing defendants convicted of capital crimes was ludicrous. 

Studies were done.  Newspapers like the Dallas Morning News regularly reported on the horrors of death penalty indigent defense in Texas today.  The Texas Legislature reacted. 

Light was shed on some pretty shocking scenarios:  death penalty defendants with appellate lawyers having no death penalty defense experience; some having attorneys who had walked away from the appeal/appointment; others having appellate counsel who had died and were never replaced with a new court appointment.  Appalling in any state, but especially in Texas where capital punishment is so favored.  

The Office of Capital Writs Replaces Court Appointed Appeals Counsel in Death Penalty Cases

Starting this fall, Brad Levenson will be responsible for representing Texas Death Row appellants in state habeas corpus appeals. Proponents argue that this solution will not only provide a higher quality of appellate counsel for those setting on Death Row, but it will cost about the same. 

Believers are also arguing that Texas' OCW will result in lower caseloads and higher accountability in indigent capital defense appeals. 

This Should Be Interesting ....

One wonders how a man with federal experience in another state -- especially California, whose liberal approach to the death penalty in its precedent is almost in direct contrast to the perspective given capital punishment in Texas courts -- was determined to be the best fit for this new job.  Interesting.

Also, there's the idea of costs.  One of the core problems with indigent defense is a lack of funds.  The reason behind those court appointments being downright embarrassing for the State of Texas is the reality that there wasn't enough funding to pay more experienced or higher quality private appellate attorneys sufficiently to take those Death Penalty appeals. 

It's a core problem across this country - money for indigent defense.  So, while we all support this new tactic to provide decent appellate representation to defendants who set on Texas Death Row, it's going to be interesting to watch how the Texas Office of Capital Writs will be doing in the next few years.

Best of luck to Mr. Levenson.  We will watch and pray.

Georgia's Jamie Weis Petition Before USSCt - Will Indigent Defense Funding Crisis Be Addressed by Supreme Court?

Georgia Defendant Jamie R. Weis is getting lots of media attention today, as an article written by Adam Liptak in yesterday's New York Time's Sidebar column is being republished and discussed all over the country. 

What NYT's Liptak has done is place a spotlight upon a case that has been pending before the U.S. Supreme Court for awhile now.  In Cause No. 09-10715, Jamie R. Weis is petitioning the HIgh Court to review a decision of the Georgia Supreme Court, which voted its 4-3 approval of state prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Mr. Weis -- even though he has been incarcerated for two years without an attorney.  (Read the Petition for Writ of Certiorari here.)

That's right. Jailed. No lawyer. Two years. Georgia. Death Penalty Sought.

Mr. Weis's petition is based in part on an argument that he has been denied his right to a speedy trial. (A criminal defendant's right to a speedy trial is guaranteed to him/her under the Sixth Amendment, as well as various statutes such as the federal Speedy Trial Act.) 

Indigent Defense Crisis in Death Penalty Cases: Real Issue Before the U.S. Supreme Court in Weis

However, if you're wondering about money being the reason behind all of this, you're right.  Like many death penalty defendants, Mr. Weis cannot afford to hire his own counsel.  Apparently, the State of Georgia has not been able to find the funds to pay for an attorney to represent him. 

Powerful Amicus Brief Brings Capital Defense Indigent Defense Crisis Into Focus

In an amicus curaie brief filed last month, several prominent members of the GeorgiaBar presented their arguments to the Supreme Court, in support of Weis' petition.  Among them: Norman Fletcher, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.  (Read their amicus brief here.)

Tellingly, and importantly, the friends of the court argue that the Georgia state legislature made a "deliberate choice to not adequately fund indigent defense" -- and accordingly, defendants should not suffer -- and have their constitutional rights ignored -- because of a lack of funding.

New York Times Article Helps Bring Public Awareness to Critical Issue

In the court of public opinion, Adam Liptak dovetails the amicus brief's overview of the current state of indigent defense within the State of Georgia with a discussion of the right to appointed counsel.  Liptak includes the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Vermont v. Brillon, where they recognized the possiblity of “a systemic breakdown in the public defender system,” but failed to give any solutions to that situation.

Crisis in Death Penalty Indigent Defense Funding Must Be Addressed

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the crisis facing the criminal justice system today, in every state, because of the lack of funding for indigent defense.  Will the High Court finally address the practical realities of implementing the constitutional rights it has recognized with the correlated budgetary commitments it has created? 

Let's watch and see.  Fingers crossed? Yes.  Don't hold your breath, though.

Guest Post: Cut This: The Death Penalty by James Clark

[The following post is being republished here with the permission of its author, James Clark, field organizer for the ACLU, Southern California.  It was previously published on the Huffington Post on June 28, 2010.]

California's governor has proposed closing the state's $20 billion budget gap with a drastic cuts-only approach; slashing funding for vital human services without working to increase revenue. Yet one state program seems to be immune from these cuts: the death penalty.

We think the time has come to CUT THIS. (see video below) 

California spends vast amounts of money prosecuting death penalty cases and supporting death row. To avoid executing an innocent person, the death penalty process is long, complicated, and expensive. Each prosecution seeking death costs approximately $1.1 million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment, and with more than 700 inmates, California's death row is by far the largest and most costly in the nation. In total, California's death penalty system costs taxpayers $137 million per year.

Contrast that with just $11 million per year if we replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. Top that off with $400 million saved if we don't build a new death row, needed because the existing one is so old and overcrowded.

Today, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were to convert the sentences of all those on death row to permanent imprisonment, the state would save $1 billion over the next five years without releasing a single prisoner.

But the death penalty is not on the chopping block. Rather than cutting the death penalty, the governor has focused on cutting the "rehabilitation" side of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Programs emphasizing education, rehabilitation, and addiction treatment have all seen cuts to their budgets, while death penalty prosecutions continue statewide. 

Continue Reading...

Casey Anthony Attorney Andrea Lyons Withdraws - Orlando Sentinel Asks My Take On Lyon's Exit

Before I begin to get queries on the recent departure of Andrea Lyons from the Casey Anthony Defense Team (since both Ms. Lyon and I served as death penalty qualified counsel for Casey Anthony at one point), I ask that anyone interested read the quote that I gave to Anthony Colarossi of the Orlando Sentinel:,0,2682343.story

 Thanks to all.

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