Sunday, November 29, 2009

Caught on camera: The shocking moment 40 prison guards kick and punch juvenile inmates... already handcuffed

Last updated at 6:20 PM on 16th July 2009

In shocking CCTV footage of a prison riot, guards kicked and punched young inmates who were already in handcuffs.

Chaotic scenes were captured by surveillance video at the Juvenile Detention Centre in Jacksonville, Florida.

Mayhem broke out when an inmate broke the sprinkler system, causing a dorm to flood.

Minutes later, about 40 guards - some wearing riot gear - stormed the room. Most inmates can be seen putting their hands in the air and dropping to the floor, lying face down.

But as the footage shows, one juvenile, who sits on a bed alone without resisting, is slammed onto the floor by a warden.

One inmate is kicked as he lies on the ground and another is punched in the head after being handcuffed.

Two more inmates are kneed as they're walked out, despite already having been restrained.

The footage was released by Jacksonville Sheriff's Office which was called in to investigate the September 2008 incident.

Four correction officers have since been sacked amid claims they used unnecessary force.

The Sheriff described the actions of the prison guards as 'cheap shots' that were taken at the juveniles' expense.

'Inmates who were being escorted offered no resistance,' Sheriff John Rutherford said. 'It was completely unnecessary.'

'We had four officers who in their zeal over-reacted and used unnecessary force against some inmates who were handcuffed.

'I'm not going to tolerate that.'

After the chaos subsided, the inmates were seen lying motionless on the floor of another room. Each is handcuffed and some have their trousers around their knees.
Despite this, one officer is seen kicking an inmate, while another appears to step on his groin area.

'You see the tape. It's pretty clear,' Sheriff Rutherford said.

'Thankfully none of them were injured, but that doesn't remove the fact they were struck by officers.

'I'm glad the public sees these headlines because they understand that the men and women of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office are going to be professional, they're going to handle themselves accordingly.'

Indian River Correctional Institute warden demoted, transferred

By Lamaur Stancil

Thursday, July 9, 2009

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Officials for the state Department of Corrections announced Thursday they demoted the warden of the Indian River Correctional Institute following their investigation of the use of electrical devices on students visiting the facility in April.

Ricky Dixon was demoted to assistant warden and transferred to the Okeechobee Correctional Institution on May 15, said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, spokeswoman for the department.

The department investigated incidents at correctional facilities in Indian River and Martin counties for Take Our Children To Work Day on April 23. In each case, the corrections officers asked the children if they wanted to feel the sensation of the electronic immobilization devices, state officials said. Several children felt the pulse from the device, they said.

The investigation was completed in May, but the state did not make details of the inquiry available until this week. The State Attorney’s Office reviewed the cases and determined no criminal charges will be filed.

At the Martin event, corrections officials asked the children to hold hands in a semicircle, with one touching one of the electrodes of the device, the report said. An officer activated the device and said the children described the feeling as a tingle, the report said.

Once the state became aware of the incidents, several officers and staff members were suspended while officials started the investigation.

None of the children were seriously hurt in the incidents, state officials said. The Inspector General’s report included photos of marks left on the arms and torsos of the students from the devices used on them at the Indian River event.

Dixon was out of town on April 23 for the students’ tour of the Indian River facility, according to the report. He told state officials he became aware of the incident that day but learned more details on May 2 and reported the incident to the state, the report said.

The Inspector General determined Dixon had committed negligence and failed to report the matter in a timely fashion. Dixon was replaced by Noel Mercer, a 25-year corrections veteran who previously worked in Gulf County.

Two officers at the Indian River prison resigned during the investigation: Maj. Seth Adams, a 19-year corrections veteran, and Lt. P.J. Weisner, an 11-year veteran.

“The exercise I participated in has been a common practice,” Weisner said in his resignation letter. “At no time did I believe that any of the students were in any risk.”

The department fired Sgt. Charmaine Davis, who had worked at the Indian River facility for six years. Davis appealed but settled her complaint when the state allowed to submit her resignation rather than being fired, state officials said.

State officials also fired former Lt. Russell Bourgault at the Martin facility in Indiantown. He is scheduled for an appeal hearing at 9 a.m. Friday.

4 hospitalized after being stung by bees at prison

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — South Florida officials say four people have been hospitalized after being stung by bees inside a women's prison.

At least eight others, including guards and inmates, were treated Wednesday evening after being stung at the Broward Correctional Institution.

Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue spokesman Mike Jachles says an inmate reportedly stepped on a nest in a recreation yard and caused the hive to attack.

Jachles said it was unclear what type of bees attacked the prison.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Florida corrections officer gets 3 years for assault

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A former Florida Department of Corrections officer has been sentenced to three years in federal prison after being convicted on a civil rights charge relating to assaulting an inmate.

Federal officials say Paul Tillis was convicted by a jury on Jan. 16 of violating the civil rights of an inmate at Florida State Prison near Starke by pouring a bottle of scalding water on the inmate's chest. The evidence also shows Tillis did not get medical treatment for the inmate who had second-degree burns to his chest.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King says the Department of Justice will prosecute corrections officers who commit acts of cruelty.

Longtime Lawman Calls For Prison Reform

By Jeff Hess @ July 9, 2009 1:37 AM Permalink | Comments (1)

A little bit of religion could help solve Florida's prison system crisis.

A group called smart justice wants to shake up our current prison system.

A longtime sheriff, prosecutor and judge Allison DeFoor leads the group. He said what we are doing is not working.

"After 30 years of being in the justice system I have seen everything that doesn't work and it is most of what we are doing," DeFoor said.

He says six things do work. First, teaching prisoners belief in something higher than themselves.

"Substance abuse training, literacy training, turning 28 years old, which is a statistical fluke, getting married and having a job," He said prison that focus on these goals have much low recidivism rates and keep the community safer.

He said these programs have proven results and lead to safer communities while keeping the prison system affordable.

"We will bankrupt the state of Florida if we stay on the road we are on. And it doesn't work," DeFoor said.

The state is planning nearly 20 new prisons with a 2-billion dollar price tag, and 500-million in operating costs. He said that cannot continue and we will be forced to implement major changes to stop wasting money on the current system.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Former Death Row prisoner to speak at Vatican conference

The campaign to end the death penalty around the world, is the theme of a study conference in Rome, tomorrow, at the Pontifical Urban University. The initiative is being organized by the students of 'Omnes Gentes' of the Pontifical Urban University.

'The death penalty in the world today: the struggle for abolition, for a new culture of life' will be the subject of the talk given by Dr Charles Santoro, a member of the group 'No to the Death Penalty' of the Community of Sant'Egidio. This will be followed by Joaquin José Martinez, a former death-row prisoner in Florida, released in 2001, who will present 'A testimony from death row'.

The International Day 'Cities for Life - Cities Against the Death Penalty' recalls the first anniversary of the abolition of capital punishment from a European state, by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1786. The approval, in the last two years, of two resolutions for a universal moratorium on capital punishment in the General Assembly of the United Nations confirm a change in sentiment in the world to a new and higher threshold, to respect for human rights.

According to Amnesty International's report: 'Death Sentences and Executions in 2008,' between January and December last year, at least 2,390 people in 25 countries were put to death and at least 8,864 death sentence have been issued in 52 countries. The student association Omnes Gentes (OG) is an organization that represents all students of the Pontifical Urban University. During the year, the OG organizes several initiatives for the comparison and enrichment of students, thanks to the great variety of traditions and cultures present in the university.


Monday, November 23, 2009

WestConn speaker 'scared to die for a crime I did not commit'

Published: 07:11 p.m., Monday, November 23, 2009

Juan Roberto Melendez didn't understand what was going when police officers put him in handcuffs.

It was May 2, 1984, and Melendez was working at a Pennsylvania farm when police cars drove up suddenly and pulled him out of a crowd.

A Florida man named Delbert Baker had been brutally murdered, and Melendez -- who couldn't read or speak English -- was being charged with the crime. He'd spend the next 17 years and eight months of his life on death row before his innocence was proven.

Melendez shared his story Wednesday night at Western Connecticut State University in a lecture sponsored by the University's Division of Justice and Law Administration and the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty.

There was no physical evidence linking Melendez to the murder, but he was implicated by a police informant. During his trial, four witnesses testified that the informant had a personal grudge against Melendez.

The trial began on a Monday by Thursday he was convicted. On Friday he was sentenced to death, "and the judge complained it was taking too long," Melendez said.

Placed on death row, Melendez was full of fear and hatred. "I was very scared to die for a crime I did not commit."

And he was angry. Angry at the system that had wrongly convicted him, angry at the prosecutor, angry at his defense attorney who had promised him everything would be OK, and angry at the guards who kept him locked up.

Melendez moved beyond his hate because of the friendship of other death row prisoners. "They taught this Puerto Rican how to read, how to write, how to speak English, how to let hate and anger go," he said.

People in the WestConn audience were visibly moved by Melendez's story. "I was almost in tears just hearing this," said Serwah Adarkwa, 21, a senior marketing major.

Before the lecture Adarkwa hadn't thought about the issue much, but she was "probably all for the death penalty," she said. But after hearing Melendez talk, she realized "there are a number of innocent people on (death row).

She now thinks capital punishment should be abolished.

Kelly Light, 20, a junior justice and law major, was impressed with how Melendez took a bad situation and made something positive come from it. "I think it's really important what he was saying about using his anger in a positive way," she said.

After three unsuccessful appeals before the Florida Supreme Court, Melendez's lawyers tried a another appeal. One of his lawyers found a man's taped confession to the killing that Melendez's original defense lawyer had overlooked.

With further research, Melendez's lawyers found the prosecuting attorney had illegally withheld a transcript that corroborated the taped confession.

Additionally, there was physical evidence and further testimony that showed Baker (the man Melendez was accused of killing) had actually been murdered by the police informant who had implicated Melendez.

Melendez won a new trial, but in light of the newly discovered evidence the state dropped the charges against him.

The original prosecuting attorney was prevented from handling future homicide cases because of his mismanagement of the Melendez trial.

After 17 years, eight months and one day, Melendez was freed.

"I wasn't saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system," he said.

Since then he has toured the country and the world, sharing his story in an effort to reform the legal system and abolish the death penalty.

Early this year the Connecticut General Assembly voted to end it, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the legislation.

Melendez said he hoped efforts to the end death sentence in Connecticut will continue. "You can always release an innocent man from prison," he said, "but you can never release a man from death."

Witness in girl's death gets probation

Relatives of Kristina Hepp expressed outrage that Chelci Folds didn't get any prison time.

By Karen Voyles
Staff writer

Published: Friday, November 20, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
The surviving relatives of 4-year-old Kristina Hepp, whose father is accused of beating her to death earlier this year, cried and implored a judge Thursday to harshly punish a key witness to the little girl's death.

Despite the emotional outpouring, Chelci Folds, 19, of Mayo, received five years' probation as part of a plea deal in the case.

Prosecutors have identified Folds as the key witness against Kristina's father, Matthew Roland. State Attorney Bill Cervone has said he plans to seek the death penalty for Roland, 23, who has been indicted on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in Kristina's death.

Kristina died April 27 inside Roland's Waccasassa home. Folds, who was his girlfriend at the time, was charged with child neglect involving great bodily harm. The charge against Folds was filed after a medical examiner determined Kristina could have survived had she received medical care.

A crying Folds stood before Circuit Court Judge David Glant during an hour-long, midday sentencing hearing at the Gilchrist County Courthouse in Trenton.

"I am truly sorry," Folds said. "I know that no matter how many times I say I'm sorry, that won't bring her (Kristina) back. I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart."

During the hearing, Kristina's mother, Elizabeth Brown, participated by telephone from her home at an undisclosed location outside Florida. She urged Glant - with a voice sometimes choked with tears - to increase the sentence, saying a five-year probation was insufficient.

"I'm not sure anyone will ever know what happened, but Matthew's hand will always be stained with Kristina's blood," Brown said. "Chelci was capable of calling for help - her fingers were not broken, and her voice works as well as mine."

In his comments to the judge, Folds' attorney, Bill Salmon, claimed Folds was also a victim of Roland's abuse.

According to Salmon, Folds tried on several occasions to leave the house but had no car of her own and no access to the keys to Roland's car, had no cell phone and would leave the mobile home only when Roland drove her to her part-time job at a restaurant in Trenton. Salmon also claimed that on the last day of Kristina's life, Roland purposely kept Folds from seeing the child.

Salmon argued for leniency for Folds because of her role in the tragedy.

"There is no question that Chelci (Folds) is the single most important witness in this case" against Roland, Salmon said.

Kristina's maternal grandfather, Andrew Hepp of Ocoee, was among the witnesses who told Glant they did not know why the little girl was killed and that a sentence of five years' probation was unacceptable.

"She (Folds) needs to be held responsible," Hepp said. "She saw this happen and did nothing."

Glant said he had to weigh competing issues in the case in sentencing Folds.

"The family is justifiably seeking Department of Corrections time," Glant said. "The state entered into an agreement with the defendant (Folds) based upon their discovery, based upon what they need to have to establish the ultimate guilt in their case. So there are competing issues before me right now that cannot be reconciled by any sentence on the extremely lenient or extremely harsh end. I cannot reconcile those positions."

The Demise of the Death Penalty in the USA: The Politics of Capital Punishment and the Question of Innocence

by Richard D. Vogel
The Killing Continues

Since the suspension of the death penalty in Japan in September of 2009, the US is the only developed nation in the world that continues to execute its citizens -- but, perhaps, not for long. The unmasking of the political agenda behind state-sanctioned killing during the past 25 years and the growing number of exonerations of prisoners on death row could lead to the final demise of the death penalty in the USA.

Civil executions across the nation were halted temporarily 40 years ago and should never have resumed. Understanding why the death penalty was restored opens the door for the campaign to permanently abolish capital punishment.

The Moratorium

1,1821 executions have taken place in the US since the restoration of capital punishment in 1976 following a moratorium that went into effect in 1968 after a successful challenge spearheaded by lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Many observers believed that the Supreme Court decision in the case of Furman v. Georgia (1972), which recognized that the death penalty as it was being practiced in the US was in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and therefore unconstitutional, signaled the end of capital punishment in the US. In his concurring opinion in that landmark decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall reviewed the overwhelming evidence of racial, gender, and social class discrimination in the administration of the death penalty in the history of the nation. Concluding his argument, Marshall presented an eloquent announcement of the abolition of the death penalty in the US:

In striking down capital punishment, this Court does not malign our system of government. On the contrary, it pays homage to it. Only in a free society could right triumph in difficult times, and could civilization record its magnificent advancement. In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute. We achieve "a major milestone in the long road up from barbarism" and join the approximately 70 other jurisdictions in the world which celebrate their regard for civilization and humanity by shunning capital punishment.

The restoration and exploitation of the death penalty after the Furman decision offer a classic study of reactionary politics in action.
The first step in understanding the current politics of the death penalty in the US is to identify the jurisdictions that have reinstituted and practiced state-sanctioned killing most often since the end of the moratorium.

The Killing Zone

Map 1 accounts for all of the executions that have been carried out under civil authority in the USA since 1976, state by state:

The most striking feature of map 1 is the regional disparity in the use of the death penalty in the US. Although 35 states have retained capital punishment, only a few jurisdictions in the Deep South and the Midwest have administered it with any regularity. With the exceptions of the southwestern states of California, Nevada, and Arizona, executions in the West and Midsouth have been so rare that the retention of capital punishment in those regions is essentially more of a symbol than a functioning tool of state power. Most of New England and several states in the upper Midwest have shunned the practice of state-sanctioned killing altogether.

Chart 1 supplements map 1 by presenting the time-trends of executions in the US since the end of the moratorium:

Chart 1 clearly illustrates the two salient facts of the use of the death penalty in the US in modern times.

During the 1980s and 1990s when the use of the death penalty was on the decline around the world and the international campaign to abolish the death penalty was gaining momentum, executions in the US were climbing precipitously.
Throughout the period of the resurgence of capital punishment in the US, executions in the southern states have dominated state-sanctioned killing in the nation, accounting for a full 81% of the national total during this period.
A glance back at map 1 reveals that, even within the Killing Zone, there are striking differences in the use of the death penalty.

Death Penalty Central

The State of Texas is obviously in a class by itself and deserves the title of Death Penalty Central. No other state even comes close to the Texas total of 446 executions since 1976. Texas accounts for over 45% of the executions in the South and 37.5 % of all executions in the nation in modern times. Texas remains in the forefront of state-sanctioned killing with 22 executions to date in 2009 and four more prisoners scheduled to die before mid-January, 2010.

The total of the executions in Texas combined with those in Virginia and Oklahoma, the two second-tier jurisdictions, accounts for 67% of the executions in the Killing Zone and a 54% of all executions in the nation. A close examination of the administration of the death penalty in these three states unmasks the politics of state-sanctioned killing in the US during the past 25 years.

The Politics of State-Sanctioned Killing in the US

Chart 2 compares the execution trends in the three vanguard states of the Killing Zone:

TEXAS. Chart 2 documents the central role of the State of Texas as the driving force behind executions in the US, accounting for almost one-half of the executions that have taken place in the South since 1976. The rapid rise and spike in Texas executions occurred during the governorship of George W. Bush who signed the death warrants of 151 men and 1 woman during his tenure as governor of the state (1995-2000) before he moved on to the office of President of the United States where he approved the only three federal executions in modern times.

Executions in Texas have dropped slightly but are continuing under the governorship of James Richard (Rick) Perry, Bush's neoconservative successor, who presided over his 209th execution in mid-November 2009. The ongoing controversy over the question of if Governor Perry approved the execution of an innocent man in 2004 could become a turning point in the campaign to abolish capital punishment in the USA. (The execution of innocent persons as a factor contributing to the demise of the death penalty is discussed in the next section.)

The number of executions in Oklahoma and Virginia, though not approaching the level of state-sanctioned killing in Texas, clearly represent a second distinct tier in the Killing Zone. The fact that the abrupt rise in executions in these two states coincided with the surge of executions in Texas reveals a common political agenda.

OKLAHOMA. The trend of executions in Oklahoma reflects the same neoconservative commitment to the death penalty that Bush exhibited and Perry is maintaining in Texas. Chart 2 shows that only three executions took place in Oklahoma between the resumption of capital punishment and the governorship of Frank Keating (1995 to 2003), a neoconservative Republican who served in high positions in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations before becoming governor. State-sanctioned killing accelerated under Keating, accounting for 56% of all modern executions in Oklahoma, and dropped off as soon as he left office.

VIRGINIA. Chart 2 also tracks the parallel trend of executions under neocon Republicans in Virginia. Governors of Virginia are restricted to a single term, but Republicans George F. Allen and James (Jim) Gilmore III, who served consecutive terms (1994-1998 and 1998-2002), together presided over 63% of the executions that have occurred in modern Virginia, establishing a legacy of using the death penalty similar to those of Texas and Oklahoma. As chart 2 illustrates, executions in Virginia dropped immediately after Gilmore left office.

FLORIDA and MISSOURI. The execution histories of Florida and Missouri, the third tier states in the Killing Zone, are pertinent to the issue of the politics of contemporary state-sanctioned killing in the US. Florida, the first state to re-enact the death penalty after the moratorium and the second to resume executions, has killed regularly throughout the modern period, including during the governorship of Jeb Bush, a charter member of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. The State of Missouri did not resume civil executions until neoconservative Republican John Ashcroft became governor. Ashcroft later served as Attorney General under George H. Bush.

What emerges from the history of executions in Texas and the rest of the Killing Zone is that the driving force behind the restoration and use of capital punishment in the US has been the neoconservative Republicans' use of the death penalty as an expression of political power.

Renewing the campaign to abolish capital punishment in the US involves acknowledging the reactionary agenda behind the recent history of the death penalty and linking it to the issue of the wrongful convictions of innocent people.

The Question of Innocence

There is no greater miscarriage of justice than the execution of a person for a crime that he/she did not commit. Though state-sanctioned killing is a clear violation of the inalienable right to life, wrongful execution is one of the most egregious desecrations of human rights in the modern world. No one will ever know how many innocent persons have been executed in the US, but the probability that it has happened is beyond any reasonable doubt -- since 1973, 138 people in 26 states have been released from death row because of compelling evidence of their innocence.2 From 1973-1999, there was an average of 3.1 exonerations per year, and from 2000-2007 there was an average of 5. A total of 43 death-row inmates have been exonerated in the states of Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma (23, 10, and 10, respectively), and the State of Illinois has released 20. The high number of exonerations in Illinois prompted Governor George Ryan to commute the death sentences of all 156 prisoners on death row in the state before he left office in 2003.

The extensive news coverage of death-row exonerations has sparked a growing reluctance on the part of grand juries to indict for capital crimes and of trial juries to find defendants guilty and impose the death sentence. As a result, prosecutors, wishing to avoid hung juries, are more hesitant to pursue capital punishment than they were during the glory days of the neoconservative hegemony of the criminal justice system.

Chart 3 compares the recent trends of prisoners sentenced to death by state courts and death-row exonerations:

Chart 3 shows the dramatic decline in prisoners sentenced to death during the last 15 years as the number of death-row exonerations has continued to mount and public support for the death penalty has declined. Even during the six-year period when the number of executions was the highest (1997-2002; see chart 1), new prisoners sentenced to death dropped over 40%. The continuation of executions during this critical period underscores the neocon dedication to the use of the death penalty.

Nowhere was this cynical commitment of neoconservative politicians more apparent than in the death penalty legislation of the 1990s. Despite the exonerations and public misgivings about capital punishment documented in chart 3, the neocons, who had promised to clear the "backlog" of executions in their reactionary Contract with America (1994), pushed through the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 which facilitated the execution of many prisoners by severely limiting their legal right of habeas corpus3.

In view of the speedup of executions in the 1990s in the face of the mounting number of death row exonerations, the conclusion that, for the neocons, the question of innocence is secondary to their dedication to the death penalty is fully warranted. Fortunately, chart 3 indicates that the citizens who serve on grand juries and trial juries do not share that commitment. However, the decisions of individuals or small groups acting in good faith alone will not end the practice of state-sanctioned killing4 -- only dedicated political action will lead to the final abolition of the death penalty in the US.

Understanding the status of the death penalty today reveals the path to abolition.

The Status of the Death Penalty Today

The unmasking of the reactionary political agenda behind the death penalty in the US, linked to the troubling issue of the conviction and execution of innocent people, provides a firm foundation for a new movement to abolish the death penalty in the USA. To be successful this time, the new abolitionists must be more politically sophisticated than activists of the past. They must appreciate the full implications of the contradiction that capital punishment in the US is sanctioned by the US Constitution despite the fact that it is in blatant violation of established human rights conventions.

The Constitutional Sanction

Two amendments to the US Constitution govern capital punishment: Article VIII prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and Article XIV offers a specious guarantee of due process and equal protection under the law. In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Gregg v. Georgia that the requirements of Articles VIII and XIV had been met under the revised capital punishment law of Georgia and therefore the death penalty was constitutional. State-sanctioned killing was reaffirmed by the highest court in the nation and the executions resumed.

The Supreme Court justices recognized the influence of history on their decision: "The existence of capital punishment was accepted by the Framers of the Constitution, and for nearly two centuries this Court has recognized that capital punishment for the crime of murder is not invalid per se."

But it must be remembered that a constitution is a written instrument that embodies the political values of its authors. The Framers of the US Constitution were all rich men who were more dedicated to the preservation of their private property rights and attendant privileges than to protecting the rights of common men. It must also be kept in mind that many of the Framers were slaveholders whose fortunes were derived from slavery and whose lives were under constant threat from the men and women held in subjugation. For slaveholders, the death penalty was an essential weapon of political domination.5

The neoconservative politicians who reinstated capital punishment in modern America are political successors of the men who framed the US Constitution. The neocons are rich men seeking to maintain political power in a highly stratified society threatened by a growing underclass of citizens. It is these neocons who want to retain state-sanctioned killing as the ultimate symbol of state power in order to reinforce their reactionary political rule.

In the final analysis, the restoration of the death penalty and the surge of civil executions in the US that peaked in 1999 represents the greatest reversal in the evolution of justice since the formal reinstatement of the death penalty in Italy under the rule of Benito Mussolini.

The Human Rights Issue

The international campaign for the recognition of the right to life unthreatened by any state is the antithesis of state-sanctioned killing in the USA. Here is the timeline of that campaign:

1948. The international effort to abolish capital punishment began with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Article 3 of that document proclaimed "everyone has the right to life" and provided the founding principle for the campaign to abolish state-sanctioned killing. Since the ratification of the UDHR, 118 member states have abolished capital punishment either in law or in practice.

1966. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sought to strengthen the moral imperative against state-sanctioned killing expressed in the UDHR by encouraging member states to abolish capital punishment. Article 6 of the Covenant urged member states that retained the death penalty to restrict its imposition for only "the most serious crimes" and established a Human Rights Committee to monitor the implementation of the Covenant. To date the Covenant has been ratified by 152 nations.

1982. Europe has led the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights abolished the death penalty in peacetime in all member states. Forty-six nations have signed.

1989. In the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, the UN confronted the issue of capital punishment head-on:

The States Parties in the Present Protocol,
Believing that abolition of the death penalty contributes to enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights,
Recalling article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . , and article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights . . . ,
Noting that article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights refers to abolition of the death penalty in terms that strongly suggest that abolition is desirable,
Convinced that all measures of abolition of the death penalty should be considered as progress in the enjoyment of the right to life,
Desirous to undertake an international commitment to abolish the death penalty,
Have agreed as follows:
Article 1
1. No one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed.
2. Each State Party shall take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction.

The Second Optional Protocol allowed the use of the death penalty only during wartime and with justifiable reason. The Protocol has been adopted by 72 member states.

1989. TheConvention on the Rights of the Child prohibited the imposition of capital punishment on persons below 18 years of age. The Convention, ratified by 192 countries, is the most widely accepted human rights resolution in history.

1990. The Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty, adopted by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, provided for the total abolition of the death penalty but allows member states to retain capital punishment in wartime if they declare that reservation. So far 11 states have ratified the Protocol.

2002. Protocol 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights extended the 1982 prohibition of the death penalty to all circumstances. A total of 41 states have ratified the Protocol.

2007. The UN General Assembly passed a landmark resolution calling for a moratorium on executions in all member states that had retained capital punishment and urged them to begin phasing out the use of the death penalty.

The sorry record of the USA on human rights in general and the death penalty in particular stands in stark contrast to the progress of the international abolition campaign:

In the second half of the 20th century, when the international campaign to abolish the death penalty was gaining momentum in Europe, reactionary politicians in the US were restoring capital punishment as a symbolic political tool to reinforce their rule.
The US has not ratified The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. In the late 1980s, when the Protocol went into effect, the surge of executions in the US was well underway.
The US has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since 1990, over half of the known executions of child offenders (19 of 36) have taken place in the US. Only eight states in the modern world have not ratified the Convention -- China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States.
The United States has not ratified the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty.
At the turn of the century, when the European Union was about to completely ban state-sanctioned killing, executions in the US under neoconservative administrations had surpassed the pre-moratorium levels of mid-century.
The US voted against the UN resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in 2007.
A New Abolition Campaign

Rejection of the political agenda behind state-sanctioned killing in the US and declining public support for capital punishment because of wrongful convictions could lead to the eventual abandonment of the death penalty in the USA. But disuse is not enough. De facto abolition reserves the state's power to execute citizens and does not recognize the right to life as a universal human right. The abolition of capital punishment is clearly a progressive political issue that must be confronted and resolved by political means.

Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights states the relationship between democracy and the abolition of the death penalty succinctly:

Convinced that everyone's right to life is a basic value in a democratic society and that the abolition of the death penalty is essential for the protection of this right and for the full recognition of the inherent dignity of all human beings; . . . The death penalty shall be abolished. No one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed.

The advancement of democracy in the United States requires that the campaign to abolish the death penalty that was subverted by neoconservative politicians in the 20th century be revived. To be successful this time around, the abolition movement in the US must become an integral part of a broad civic revolution, the only conceivable force that can reverse the national trends of rising inequality, growing absolute poverty, and escalating political repression. This civic revolution must be based on the vision of a new democracy -- a social order based on the recognition of the inalienable rights of all people rather than the power and privilege of a few.

The abolition of the death penalty in the US today can no longer be approached as a single-issue campaign -- the fate of the death penalty and the future course of democracy in the USA are inextricably linked.

1 This is the total as of mid-November, 2009. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) offers comprehensive information on executions in the US and updates its database as new executions are announced.

2 The DPIC website includes the profiles of eight cases in which prisoners were executed in spite of serious doubts about their guilt. The Innocence Project, founded in 1992, has aided the exoneration of 244 prisoners who had been convicted of various crimes, including 17 who had spent time on death row. The Project maintains that the number of innocent people incarcerated in the US is staggering.

3 The writ of habeas corpus, which has been called the Great Writ, is a legal action through which a person can seek relief from the unlawful detention of himself or herself, or of another person. Of English origin, the writ of habeas corpus has historically been an important instrument for safeguarding individuals against the power of the state. The neoconservative attack on the right of habeas corpus in the US is one of the most reactionary maneuvers in legal history.

4 Jury nullification has proven to be a viable weapon against injustice but is severely limited because it challenges injustice on a case-by-case basis, whereas state-sanctioned killing is ultimately a political issue that will have to be confronted as such in order to be abolished.

5 Violent slave revolts in the American colonies were naturally feared and ruthlessly punished. An early slave rebellion on Long Island, New York in 1708 resulted in the execution of one Native American slave and three Black slaves by hanging and burning. Authorities retaliated against a larger and more serious rebellion in New York City in 1712 with the mass execution of 20 Black slaves by hanging, burning, and breaking on the wheel. The suppression of a second slave revolt in New York City in 1741 entailed the execution of 30 Black slaves, two white men, and two white women. An early southern colonial slave rebellion in Stono, S.C. in 1739 resulted in the execution of at least one slave. The ESPY File, a comprehensive listing of executions in the US, documents at least 276 executions for the crime of slave revolt, 133 executions of slaves for the crimes of arson and poisoning, and 20 executions (including 18 whites) for the crime of aiding a runaway slave.

Richard D. Vogel is a political reporter who monitors the effects of globalization on working people and their communities and the editor of From the Left: A US Forum on Combating Globalization. Contact: .

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

High court to hear scent evidence appeal

The Court of Criminal Appeals will hear a case from San Jacinto County calling into question the validity of dog scent lineups. Richard Winfrey was convicted of murder after being identified in one of Keith Pikett's dog scent lineups. The CCA previously affirmed that Deputy Pikett was an expert. Now they can correct mistake by determining that scent lineups are unreliable and should not be used in a courtroom.

More information here :

Source (Innocence Project of Texas)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Executions are expensive and an ineffective deterrent. Should the death penalty die?

By Susan Taylor Martin, Times Senior Correspondent
In Print: Sunday, November 15, 2009

Does it seem like not so long ago that John Allen Muhammad — the D.C. Sniper — was terrorizing residents of the nation's capital? And does it seem as if the state of Virginia executed him with unusual speed — just six years from his sentencing to his death?

If it seems that way to you, you're not alone.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stay Muhammad's execution last week, three justices noted the relative haste with which he met his state-ordered end.

"This case highlights once again the perversity of executing inmates before their appeals process has been fully concluded,'' Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for himself, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Nor was Muhammad's case unique. Of the 10 other inmates recently put to death in Virginia, the average length of time between sentence and execution was 6 ½ years.

Contrast that to Florida, where the last man executed, John Marek, sat on death row for nearly a quarter of a century. And where another inmate, triple murderer Gary Alvord, has been awaiting execution since 1974 — the year President Richard Nixon resigned.

The huge disparity in the time it takes states to execute murderers stems from a number of factors. But at the heart of the issue is the death penalty itself and whether it too should be put to an end.

As Florida and other states struggle with shrinking budgets, it becomes increasingly hard to justify sending people to death row and keeping them there for years when even many in law enforcement say there are cheaper, more effective deterrents to crime. Whether execution comes quickly — as in Virginia — or is delayed for decades — as is often the case in Florida — capital punishment has little appreciable effect on murder rates, experts note.

"Is it worth pursuing death in a case that may cost the state $2 million more than pursuing life in prison?'' asks Scott Sundby, an expert on capital punishment at Virginia's Washington and Lee School of Law. "Two million dollars is a lot of teachers, a lot of firefighters, a lot of police officers. When you start thinking about it that way, it becomes much harder to make those tradeoffs.''

• • •

Although seven of his 13 victims were in Maryland, Muhammad wound up before a sentencing judge in Virginia, a state known for its comparatively swift dispatch of death row inmates.

One of the main reasons is that Virginia, unlike most states, sets execution dates before all appeals are completed.

"It always speeds up the process so the defense attorneys have to file before the actual appeals deadline,'' says Beth Panilaitis, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

That's what happened in Muhammad's case. The Supreme Court was to hear his petition Nov. 24, but the state scheduled the execution for Nov. 10, rushing the justices' deliberation on a matter "that demands the most careful attention,'' as Stevens complained.

Another factor: Though Virginia has executed more people than any other state except Texas since 1976, it has imposed relatively few death sentences in recent years and has a small death row population — 22 today. So there is not a huge backlog of cases requiring judicial review as there is in Florida, where 387 are awaiting execution, or California, with 678 on death row.

"A capital case is the neurosurgery of the legal system,'' Sundby says. "The law is very complicated, the trials are very complicated, and as a result it shouldn't be surprising that it takes a while to have a full and fair hearing if someone's constitutional rights have been satisfied.

"By their very nature these cases are going to take a long time, and when you put them in states like Florida or California, where you already have 300, 400, 500 cases in the queue, it's certainly a recipe for a very long time between sentencing and actual execution.''

Sundby and other experts also note that Virginia's appeals courts are more conservative than those in Florida and California and thus more likely to affirm death sentences. That's another reason cases move more quickly through the system.

"In both Virginia and Texas, the courts simply are not players, they are not in the game,'' says Stephen Hanlon, a Washington attorney who has handled capital cases. "There's no significant review in either of these states whereas the courts are a player in Florida and do take review much more seriously than in other states and for good reason.''

Since 1973, at least 138 people nationwide — including a retarded Virginia man — have been exonerated and freed from death row. The average time between sentencing and exoneration was 9.8 years — three years longer than the average Virginia inmate now stays on death row before being executed.

"It absolutely opens the door to mistakes being missed,'' says Panilaitis of the Virginians for death penalty alternatives. And mistakes often occur: A landmark study of all capital cases between 1976 and 1996 found errors in 67 percent of them.

Says Hanlon: "If you get something wrong 67 percent of the time, something's wrong and I think responsible courts know that.''

It's costly to kill

All this would be moot if Virginia, Florida, Texas and California did what 15 states already have done — outlaw capital punishment. Several other states seriously considered it this year, including Connecticut, whose legislature passed an abolition bill only to have it effectively vetoed by a tough-on-crime governor.

The reasons the death penalty is falling out of favor? Cost and effectiveness.

"Around the country, death sentences have declined 60 percent since 2000 and executions have declined almost as much,'' according to a new report by the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. "Yet maintaining a system with 3,300 people on death row and supporting new prosecutions for death sentences that likely will never be carried out is becoming increasingly expensive and harder to justify.''

Case in point: New York and New Jersey spent more than $100 million on a system that produced no executions. Both recently abandoned the practice.

In Florida, the cost of prosecution, defense, appeals and heightened security in capital cases is an estimated $51 million a year greater than what it would be to punish first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions carried out in Florida from 1976 to 2000, that comes to about $24 million per execution.

And many capital cases never result in executions because defendants die — as did John Couey, who murdered 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford — or because sentences are reversed, laws are overturned or governors grant clemency.

"This often means that a life sentence is the end result, but only after a very expensive death penalty process,'' the report notes.

In a poll released with the report, U.S. police chiefs listed the death penalty last among their priorities for reducing violent crime. Nearly 60 percent said it had little deterrent value because perpetrators rarely think about the consequences of their acts.

Instead, increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating more jobs all ranked far higher than capital punishment in preventing crime, the chiefs agreed. Or as former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper succinctly put it:

"The death penalty is inefficient and extravagantly expensive.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified: Nov 13, 2009 05:56 PM]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pending appeal thwarts execution petition efforts

Burns Jr. has been on death row for more than 21 years


MANATEE — The efforts of a local family seeking to expedite the execution of a Florida death row inmate have stalled.

Daniel Burns Jr. has been on death row at Florida State Prison near Starke for more than 21 years after being found guilty in the murder of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jeff Young.

Young’s niece, Debbie Smith, a supervisor with the child protection division of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, drafted an online petition last month and sent it to Gov. Charlie Crist.

As of this week, however, there’s been no response from the governor’s office. And there likely won’t be any time soon because of a pending appeal in the case.

“It’s disappointing,” said Smith, who learned of the appeal shortly after sending the petition to Crist. “I thought all of his appeals were done.”

On Oct. 6, Judge Steven D. Merryday gave the state 45 days to respond to several grounds raised by the defense in a petition challenging the validity of Burns’ conviction and death sentence. The pending appeal is in U.S. District Court in Tampa.

After the state response, Burns and his lawyers have 30 days to respond. Then the state has an additional 20 days to reply after that.

“This could be a matter of months,” said Robert Batey, law professor at Stetson University’s Gulfport campus. “Before you execute somebody, you better be sure the result is correct and that the process was done in a way that was legally and constitutionally fair.”

If denied by the Tampa court, there could be an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals 11th Circuit in Atlanta, and, possibly, a “very rare” review by the U.S. Supreme Court, Batey said.

The Polk County case

Smith’s petition drive was ignited by another petition to Crist, started by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd seeking to expedite the execution of Paul Beasley Johnson.

Johnson has been on death row for 28 years after being convicted in the murders of three people, including a deputy. In response, Crist signed Johnson’s death warrant, scheduling the execution for Nov. 4.

But it was stayed by the Florida Supreme Court because of pending appeals. Justice Barbara Pariente said at the start of oral argument in one of those appeals that Crist’s signing of the death warrant put the high court in a “difficult position.”

Seven hours after the argument, justices ordered the indefinite stay of execution.

“It’s obvious there are no standards,” Johnson’s lawyer Martin McClain told the Associated Press after Crist signed the death warrant despite pending appeals. “You have to have a principled way to distinguish between who gets executed and who doesn’t.”

A petition drive, he added, doesn’t cut it.

But the governor apparently took everything into consideration.

“Signing a death warrant is a responsibility that Governor Crist takes very seriously and after a careful review,” Crist press secretary Sterling Ivey said in an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald. “There are a number of items the governor’s legal team reviews before recommending a death warrant be signed.”

According to Ivey, those items include “state of appeals; or issues raised in appeals process.”

When asked what the reasoning was for the governor’s signing of Johnson’s death warrant when he still had outstanding appeals, Ivey said, “We do review the appeals and look at the status of any appeals and the basis for the appeals.”

But Professor Batey said Crist’s signing a death warrant despite pending appeals “appears to be something close to political grandstanding.”

A routine traffic stop

According to numerous eyewitness accounts, Burns wrestled Young to the ground during a routine traffic stop Aug. 18, 1987. Burns then grabbed Young’s gun and shot and killed him with a single bullet to the face, near the Interstate 75 bridge over the Manatee River that now bears the trooper’s name.

Burns’ lawyers have filed numerous appeals. They’ve already gone as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, filing a petition of review that was denied in February 1998. The pending appeal, a petition for writ of habeas corpus, was filed July 20, 2007.

“We, the undersigned, ask Gov. Charlie Crist to expedite this case and sign the death warrant for Daniel Burns,” Smith’s online petition reads on Signatures surpassed 7,533 on Friday.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections:

n There are 386 men and one woman on death row in Florida.

n The average stay on the state’s death row prior to execution is 12.5 years.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Judge: man to return to death row for 2002 murder

FORT PIERCE, Fla. -- A former assisted living center employee convicted of murdering a resident's daughter in 2002 is going back to death row.

Circuit Judge Robert Belanger sentenced 56-year-old Andrew Michael Gosciminski on Friday to death for a second time.

His attorney, Mark Harllee, says errors made by the prosecution throughout the trial could be grounds for appeal.

Last month, a St. Lucie County jury voted 9-3 for the execution. The same jury had found Gosciminski guilty of first-degree murder, robbery and burglary.

Gosciminski had already been convicted and sentenced to death in 2005, but the Florida Supreme Court threw out the conviction last year and ordered a new trial. The high court ruled some evidence during his 2005 trial had been improperly admitted.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Innocence Project of Texas

The Court of Criminal Appeals will hear a case from San Jacinto County calling into question the validity of dog scent lineups. Richard Winfrey was convicted of murder after being identified in one of Keith Pikett's dog scent lineups. The CCA previously affirmed that Deputy Pikett was an expert. Now they can correct mistake by determining that scent lineups are unreliable and should not be used in a courtroom.

Check out this Victoria Advocate article for additional details: