[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----PENN., TENN., OHIO, IOWA
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Jun 5 20:47:40 CDT 2005
Forum: Another roadblock to the truth----Pennsylvania's prisons maintain
an absurdly restrictive policy for interviewing inmates, says Bill
Moushey, thwarting legitimate attempts to uncover injustices
In a Pennsylvania prison visitation room crowded with other inmates,
veteran Harrisburg newspaper reporter Pete Shellem interviewed a notorious
mob informer about his undercover work for the FBI, but it took a
painfully long time because the wary, whispering inmate feared another
convict would make him out as a snitch.
Just weeks after Post-Gazette staff writer Mike Bucsko was refused
permission to have photographs made of an inmate for a story, the same
prison warden allowed a photographer from USA Today to take pictures of
the same guy.
Andy Sheehan, a KDKA-TV investigative reporter, says when it comes to
television reporting -- whether intended or not -- the Pennsylvania
Department of Corrections media visitation policy of rarely allowing
cameras into prisons totally stifles coverage. In television, if there are
no pictures, there is no story.
Those are just some of the effects of this state's prison media visitation
policy that has become one of the most restrictive in the United States.
OK, let right-wing talk radio hosts lead the mantra: Do the crime, do the
time! And I know you might be thinking: Please, who cares about how tough
it is for reporters to do their jobs?
But while most prisoners are locked up for things they did, there are
weekly headlines across the nation about hundreds of people freed over the
past decade after proving they were wrongly convicted -- including seven
individuals in Pennsylvania.
Over the past five years, the Innocence Institute of Point Park University
has published numerous investigative reports about allegations of wrongful
convictions in this region, including 2 instances where judges have
reversed murder convictions. In one of the cases, a death row inmate once
was 4 days from execution.
Sure, most convicts claim innocence. That's why the Innocence Institute's
motto is: "Guilty Until Proven Innocent." But as I look back on the
project's successes in causing cases to be reopened or reversed and read
hundreds of prison letters claiming wrongful convictions each month, I
wonder: How many more are there? With the restrictive policy employed by
the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that effectively suppresses
coverage, we may never know.
In my work at the Innocence Institute, a partnership with the PG where
students learn investigative reporting through examinations of real-world
allegations of wrongful convictions, the policy places repeated roadblocks
in the path to finding the truth.
Reporters have faced refusals and impediments of all sorts -- including
one female graduate student ordered to remove her bra before an interview
with a lifer because it had a metal liner.
All of this seems particularly absurd to this writer, whose travels have
included prison visits all over the nation. I was once allowed to carry a
laptop computer, a tape recorder, legal files and notebooks into the
Supermax U.S. Penitentiary at Florence, Colo. -- known as the most secure
prison in the world. In Pennsylvania, a reporter is allowed one pen and a
The pettiness in Pennsylvania -- which has nothing to do with security --
After one 4-hour drive to a prison in Camp Hill, I was turned away from an
interview approved in advance because the inmate had already done his only
allowed visit for the day. The prison gatekeeper snickered.
Another time, I was only allowed to bring one pen and paper into an
interview and when the pen ran out of ink, I was headed for another walk
through the gantlet of security checks -- which would have doubled the
time needed for the interview -- until a friendly guard let me borrow his.
On another recent day, a state prison official ordered reporters awaiting
the release of a wrongfully convicted man off the expansive property
surrounding the State Correctional Institution at Fayette to a road
hundreds of yards away. No pictures.
It is clear the keepers of the prisons have accomplished what they set out
to do almost a decade ago when convicted Philadelphia cop killer Mumia
Abu-Jamal created an international furor (and a horde of media followers)
with his claims of innocence through writings from death row.
Abu-Jamal was frequently interviewed under the state's previous policy of
allowing media interviews (with cameras) as long as it was a matter of
mutual consent and did nothing to interrupt the normal function and
security of the institution. Someone didn't like how it was playing out,
so Abu-Jamal and everyone else was effectively muzzled.
Now, if an inmate wants to do a media interview, he or she must use one of
three treasured monthly family/friends visits and the media representative
must seek approval in advance to bring a pen and paper in for the
interview. That's it -- a pen and paper.
There have been numerous exceptions to this rule (although none for this
writer, other than being allowed to occasionally use a private room).
Recently, photographers were allowed to make pictures without faces in a
prison hospital. Others were allowed to photograph the last days of
Western Penitentiary as long as no inmate faces were depicted. Photos of
an art show, a musical performance and a few other things that make prison
officials look good have been allowed.
But most of the time, the answer to media questions about interviews with
real people with real issues that have even a tinge of controversy is a
No recording devices allowed.
No laptop computers allowed.
No cameras allowed, television or still.
That usually means -- no story.
Corrections officials say the policy change was made because of the high
volume of requests for interviews and an associated dramatic rise in the
"Reporter access to inmates is something that the DOC not only permits
under its policy in a variety of ways, but welcomes," says Susan
McNaughton, the department's press secretary. Inmates can call reporters
(collect). And the policy still allows visits.
Especially braless graduate students, I guess.
"I truly believe they are trying to cut these guys off from the world and
their freedom to speak out," said Shellem, who despite the policy has
successfully written stories for the Harrisburg Patriot-News about
wrongful convictions and systematic abuses.
Whatever the motives, the policy change made Pennsylvania the seventh-most
restrictive situation in the country, according to a survey done by the
For instance, in Ohio, West Virginia and New York, the media are allowed
interviews with all forms of recording devices in separate rooms.
As I toted all my equipment to the Florence Supermax visitor's room to do
an interview with an associate of New York's Colombo Crime Family, I
described to a federal prison official the media policy differences
between that super-secure joint (which has housed folks like the
Unabomber) and prisons in Pennsylvania.
He said barriers preventing physical contact make it safe there for use of
electronic equipment. The other reason to allow equipment into that high
security prison is as simple as it is loaded with common sense -- it
enables reporters to get their work done and get out of the prison as
quickly as possible.
It's the same common-sense approach taken in numerous other states.
If Shellem interviewed a mob informer in Ohio or New York or throughout
the federal prison system, the inmate would not have been forced to use
his own family visitation privileges and he would not have had to tell his
story in a crowded room within earshot of other inmates who delight in
torturing snitches. Talk about a lack of security.
In Bucsko's case, a photographer would have been able to make an inmate
picture without having to suffer through the arbitrary rulings of a prison
Sheehan says broadcast coverage of prison stories would increase
dramatically if cameras were allowed inside institutions to tell the
stories of inmates and not just programs.
The same goes for network television. In the past few years, the Innocence
Institute has received numerous inquiries from producers seeking to cover
some of the stories it has written about.
Whether it was "60 Minutes" or "20/20" or "Dateline NBC," once they learn
there is no access for on-camera prison interviews, the stories are
dropped until a person walks out the prison door.
When a person does walk free, the media will be lucky to get a picture of
that because at places like the expansive new prison in Fayette County,
news organizations have been ordered off state property.
All of those examples are from aggressive reporters who unsuccessfully
have pressed prison officials into allowing them enough access to complete
prison-related stories, some of which were about the wrongly convicted.
Common sense aside, I know of many other reporters who see how restrictive
the policy is and simply give up the struggle through the bureaucracy
before ever probing into an inmate's claim, leaving some inmates with
legitimate claims without a voice.
That once again begs the question: How many more are there?
(source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- Bill Moushey, a Post-Gazette staff
writer, is an associate professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at
Point Park University, where he is also director of the Innocence
Institute of Point Park. Robert Rider, a graduate student in journalism at
Point Park, contributed to this article)
Reid's death sentence upheld for slayings at McDonald's
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld the conviction and
death sentence of Paul Dennis Reid Jr. for the 1997 slayings of 3
employees of a Hermitage McDonald's restaurant.
In his appeal, Reid presented a list of 47 errors he believed were made in
his trial, challenging actions ranging from the validity of his indictment
to jurors being allowed to hear testimony from the victims' families.
Appeals court justices upheld the trial court's actions on all points in
the decision released yesterday.
Reid has been convicted of three incidents of multiple murder during a
3-month period in 1997. He received seven death sentences for the string
of murders at fast-food restaurants in Nashville and Clarksville.
Reid dropped his appeals on 2 of his death sentences in 2003, clearing the
way for his execution that April. But his sister appealed to a federal
appeals court on his behalf, which delayed his execution.
Reid then decided to resume his appeals.
A Texas drifter who moved to Nashville to attempt a career in country
music, Reid was fired as a dishwasher from a Shoney's restaurant on Feb.
15, 1997, for losing his temper and throwing a plate that hit another
The next day, Sarah Jackson, 16, and Steve Hampton, 25, were slain
execution-style at a Captain D's restaurant in Donelson not far from the
In March 1997, Ronald Santiago, 27; Robert A. Sewell Jr., 23; and Andrea
Brown, 17, were shot and killed in a midnight robbery at a McDonald's a
few miles from the Captain D's.
A month later, Angela Holmes, 21, and Michelle Mace, 16, were kidnapped in
a robbery of about $1,500 at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store in
Clarksville. Their throats were slashed and their bodies were dumped at
Dunbar Cave State Natural Area.
Reid was arrested in June 1997 and linked to the murders after attempting
to kidnap and kill the Shoney's manager who fired him.
On May 24, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld Reid's death sentence for
the murders of the young women who worked at the Clarksville
The court set an Oct. 5 execution date for Reid, who has several state and
federal appeals remaining.
(source: Associated Press)
Death sentence plea bargains include several multiple-victim killers
While Ohio has sentenced 196 offenders to death for killing 1 person, 131
people who killed 2 or more victims have been allowed to avoid a death
sentence by pleading guilty, including 25 who killed at least 3 people:
Charles Newman, pleaded guilty to killing his wife, his children ages 2
and 3 and his 16-year-old sister-in-law in a house fire in 2000.
Harry Sanford, pleaded guilty to killing 2 brothers and their uncle in
Thomas DeWitt, pleaded guilty to killing his father, 78-year-old
grandmother and 2 neighbors in 1983.
CUYAHOGA: P> Antonio Judkins, Jose Castro, Kishaun Cotchery, Robert Owens,
pleaded guilty to killing 3 people in a 1994 robbery.
Derrick Jones and Marlon Scarbrough, pleaded guilty to shooting 3 men to
death in an argument over drugs in 1991.
Tracy Mitchell, pleaded guilty to robbing and beating 3 people to death in
1996, including two men in their 70s.
Christian Fuhr, pleaded guilty to killing 3 prostitutes in 2001.
James Stelts, pleaded no contest to killing 2 men and a pregnant woman in
Robert Cordell, pleaded guilty to killing his former sister-in-law and 2
neighbors in 2002.
Daniel Desellems, pleaded guilty to killing 3 members of a family in a
fire in 1986.
David Daniel Kraft and Richard Eugene Brand, pleaded guilty to killing a
family of 5 in a cult-related slaying in 1989, including children ages 6,
13 and 15.
Brothers Herman Howard Bittner and Howard Herman Bittner, pleaded guilty
to killing 3 people in 1983.
Elmer Ahart, pleaded guilty to shooting 3 people in 1992.
Heather Nichole Matthews, pleaded guilty to a Christmas 1992 killing spree
of 5 people.
Thomas Lee Dillon, pleaded guilty to shooting 5 sportsmen with
high-powered rifles in eastern Ohio in 1989 and 1990.
James Curry, pleaded guilty to killing his former girlfriend, her
9-year-old son and her mother and sister in 2000.
Lawrence Michael Hensley, pleaded guilty to fatally shooting 4 people,
including 3 teenage girls, in 1999.
James Rash, pleaded guilty to killing a family of 5 in a fire in 1988,
including children ages 4, 5 and 12.
Richard Geringer, pleaded guilty to shooting to death his girlfriend, wife
and 13-year-old daughter.
(source: Associated Press)
Johnson attorneys work to avoid the death penalty
Iowa Attorneys for Angela Johnson will continue tomorrow (Monday)to make
their case for sparing her life and seeking a life prison sentence instead
of the death penalty.
The penalty phase of her murder trial continues tomorrow in Sioux City.
The prosecution argues that the 41-year-old Johnson should be sentenced to
death after her conviction on ten counts of aiding and abetting her former
boyfriend Dustin Honken in the execution-style slayings of 5 people.
Prosecutors say the 1993 shootings, which included two children, were part
of a plot to undermine a federal investigation into Honken's multistate
The death penalty is an option because Johnson is being tried in federal
court. The jury's recommendation, life or death, will be binding upon
Judge Mark Bennett.
Johnson's mother, Pearl Johnson, of Mason City, was the first witness on
her behalf called last week. She will continue testimony tomorrow.
The defense has a list of about 30 witnesses including Honkin, who has
been convicted and faces the death penalty. He has told the court he plans
to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, which permits witnesses to avoid
(source: Associated Press)
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