[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS, ILL., NEB., CALIF.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Wed Mar 16 16:44:34 CST 2005
Luckiest' killer in Texas sees a future now----Supreme Court decision adds
impetus to debate on adding life without parole sentence in Texas
Convicted killer Johnnie Bernal considers himself a lucky man.
When the U.S. Supreme Court 2 weeks ago banned the execution of convicts
who committed their crimes before they turned 18, the former Houston
gangbanger's life was spared.
Bernal was just 1 day short of his 18th birthday the night college student
Lee Dilley, 19, was gunned down during a botched robbery.
"I made it by one day, I know," Bernal, now 28, said from an interview
cell just off death row at the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston, where he
will soon depart for a regular prison - and the possibility of parole
after he serves 40 years.
"Now, my focus is going to be on my appeal, on getting out - completely
Just as Bernal has become a national poster boy for critics of the high
court's decision, he is a case study of what promises to be Texas' next
hot-button issue: Whether the Legislature should enact a law allowing for
life without parole to keep underage capital killers from one day becoming
eligible to leave prison.
That debate begins Tuesday, when the Senate Criminal Justice Committee
takes up Senate Bill 60, which would add life without parole as a 3rd
sentencing alternative for capital crimes. At present, juries must decide
between execution and life with the possibility of parole.
"Is there a danger to the public? Yes. Has this (Supreme Court) decision
left a loophole in our law?
Yes," said state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, a self-proclaimed
supporter of the death penalty and sponsor of SB 60, his 3rd try to pass
life without parole in as many legislative sessions.
4 related bills are pending in the Texas House, including one that would
keep the choices to 2: death and life without parole. Lucio's bill is the
1st to get a public hearing, a step that Sen. John Whitmire, the chairman
of the Criminal Justice Committee, says promises to be "one of the most
serious issues debated this session."
Whether it has the votes to pass into law this session is far from
In all, the high court's decision freed Bernal and 28 other convicted
killers from Texas' death row, including Robert Springsteen IV, who was
convicted in Austin's infamous 1991 yogurt shop murders.
For Lucio and other supporters, the issue is simple: 47 other states lock
up their most heinous killers without the chance of ever getting out. Only
Texas, Alaska and New Mexico do not.
In the past, big-city prosecutors and victims' rights groups have
steadfastly opposed the change, arguing that it will stack the legal deck
in favor of a life term. Ironically, proponents of the change argue much
the same position.
"There's no finality in all this unless there's an execution," said Dianne
Clements of the Houston-based victims' advocacy group Justice for All.
Statistical studies in other states that have enacted life without parole
show no decrease in death sentencing rates. Death penalty opponents insist
that death penalty decisions have declined as news of DNA evidence and
wrongful convictions have made jurors more cautious. Despite that, Lucio
warns that inaction this year could pose a new risk.
"The way it is now, with the Supreme Court ruling in effect, someone on
death row could eventually walk out of prison," Lucio said. "That
Freedom is exactly what Bernal hopes for.
"My goal is one day to get out of here," he said. "I want to get into
school, to get my GED, to get married, to make something of myself ?
On Friday, Aug. 19, 1994, Bernal was thinking about none of the such. The
tall, quiet 10th-grade dropout, known as the Puppet by the neighborhood
gang he hung out with, the Northwest Mafia, spent the evening cruising
Northwest Houston with 4 friends, sniffing paint and looking for girls.
Shortly after midnight, their white-topped blue Buick Regal pulled up
alongside three boys and a girl standing outside Nick's Drive-In, a
neighborhood ice house.
"We were just going to mess with them, that's all," Bernal said.
In an instant, an occupant of the car pointed a pistol out the window and
demanded their money. The girl ran, then the boys. 4 shots rang out, one
hitting Dilley's left earlobe, another puncturing his back and piercing
his heart. He died instantly.
Bernal went home, where Houston police found him 12 days later, a pistol
and bullets in his nightstand drawer. Ballistics tests introduced at his
trial linked the gun to the murder. Bernal was found guilty and sentenced
to death, one of a spate of young killers sent to death row beginning in
the mid-1990s as drug- and gang-related crimes swept the state.
Bernal insists that he is innocent, that one of his friends in the back
seat, a 14-year-old boy, leaned across him with a pistol and fired the
That youth, who was on probation for weapons possession and evading
arrest, was never charged in the attack. Neither were 2 others. The driver
is serving a 35-year sentence for aggravated robbery.
In its decision, the Supreme Court drew a legal line at age 18 between
criminals who are too young to fully comprehend their actions and those
who are. Bernal says that played a role in his case.
"I was just a kid. I didn't know. I was hanging with the wrong crowd," he
said. But in nearly 10 years on death row, Bernal added, "I've grown up. .
.. I've found God. . . . I pray every day that (Lee Dilley) is in peace. I
can never take back what happened, even though I wish I could."
Such words ring hollow to victims' survivors, Texans who have been among
the most vocal in opposition to life without parole.
"The victims need to be heard," said Paula Kurland, a longtime advocate
from Humble whose daughter, Mitzi Johnson Nalley, 21, was stabbed to death
in a brutal 1986 attack at a North Austin apartment that also killed
Nalley's roommate, Kelly Joan Farquhar, and seriously injured a friend who
tried to come to her assistance. Jonathan Nobles was executed in 1998 for
Kurland is among those who will be at today's hearing, to testify in favor
of Lucio's bill.
"It would be truth in sentencing," Kurland said. "People should know that
life is life. Sometimes lifeis a death sentence, because (offenders) have
to live with their crime for the rest of their life."
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
House approves requiring certainty before imposing death penalty
Judges and juries would have to be absolutely certain of a person's guilt
before imposing the death penalty in a bill that cleared the Illinois
People on both sides of the capital punishment debate support it and it
passed 66-to-49. It now moves to the Senate.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego hopes his measure will
encourage Governor Rod Blagojevich to lift the state's moratorium on
capital punishment by ensuring no one is mistakenly condemned.
Then-Governor George Ryan halted executions in 2000 because of improper
convictions. He cleared death row in 2003 by commuting the sentences of
167 inmates and pardoning 4 others.
Opponents say the measure sets different standards for finding a defendant
guilty, then deciding whether to execute him.
(The bill is HB2704. On the Net: http://www.ilga.gov)
(source: Associated Press)
Chambers again takes aim at death penalty
For nearly a quarter century, Ernie Chambers has waged a seemingly
quixotic war against Nebraska's death penalty. Each year since 1973, the
Omaha lawmaker and only black member of the Legislature, has introduced a
bill to abolish capital punishment.
He vehemently argues, among other things, that capital punishment is
unfairly applied - especially against minorities. He has known few
victories. More Session 2005 stories
The closest he came to having the law changed was in 1979, when his bill
passed on a 26-22 vote but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charley Thone.
20 years later, he teamed with Sen. Kermit Brashear of Omaha, who tweaked
Chambers' measure to instead call for a moratorium on executions while the
Legislature studied whether the death penalty is fairly applied.
The bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Mike Johanns, but lawmakers later went on
with the study.
Undaunted, Chambers introduced a ban (LB760) again this year, which he
presented to the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
"This is something that needs to be done," Chambers said. "As long as I'm
in the Legislature, I'm going to fight to try to bring that about."
In the published description of his bill, Chambers says: "The experience
of this state with the death penalty has been fraught with errors,
frustration and delay due to constitutional mistakes in the statutes,
defective legal procedures and ... lack of uniformity in application and
inordinately heavy expenditures of money and time."
That study said that the death penalty is not being handed down uniformly.
The study examined 177 murder cases since 1973 in which the accused was
eligible for the death sentence, and in particular 27 people who were
sentenced to death.
Of those 27, 14 had circumstances that were similar to others who received
the death penalty, but 13 of them did not.
When compared to all 177 death-eligible cases, only 6 of the 27 sentences
were consistent with what others received.
Chambers said he is buoyed by several recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme
Court that have narrowed how the death-penalty can be applied.
"It shows that the support for it is eroding as a more rational view is
slowly exerting itself," Chambers said.
Another bill (LB526) discussed Wednesday was introduced by Sen. Phil
Erdman of Bayard. It would change Nebraska's method of execution to lethal
38 states and the federal government have the death penalty.
Nebraska is the only state left that uses the electric chair as its sole
means of execution. Many death-penalty supporters fear that could lead a
court to rule that the chair is cruel and unusual punishment, leaving the
state without a method of execution.
The Nebraska Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to the
electric chair in May brought by death-row inmate Carey Dean Moore.
"And in the future, we expect similar challenges in most, if not all,
potential capital cases," said Nebraska Solicitor General J. Kirk Brown.
In 2003, U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon of Omaha vacated the death
sentence of Charles Jess Palmer for a 1979 murder in Grand Island.
In doing so, Bataillon cited a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that said
juries, not judges, must decide if a crime merits the death penalty.
At the end of his order, Bataillon said he had been prepared to rule the
use of the electric chair as cruel and unusual punishment.
3 men have been put to death since Nebraska resumed executions in 1994
after a 35-year hiatus - Harold Otey, Robert Williams and John Joubert.
9 men now sit on Nebraska's death row.
(source: Associated Press)
San Quentin is Scott Peterson's new home
They can hear the waves lapping along the shore. But most inmates on San
Quentin's death row rarely catch a glimpse of the San Francisco Bay.
And that may be just fine with Scott Peterson, who was sentenced to death
Wednesday for murdering his pregnant wife and dumping her body into the
bay near the Berkeley Marina - about 10 miles, as the crow flies, from
where he'll likely spend the rest of his life.
Now that Peterson has become the 644th prisoner awaiting death in San
Quentin's execution chamber, county officials were eager to transfer him
to the state prison about 20 miles north of San Francisco. He could be
moved as early as Wednesday afternoon and most likely no later than
Friday, San Mateo Sheriff's Lt. Lisa Williams said.
Peterson will be processed just like any other inmate, according to
Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
After he's strip-searched, he'll get a shower, a haircut and state-issued
clothing. He'll be photographed and assigned a Department of Corrections
identification number. Then, a counselor will review his criminal,
educational, medical and psychological histories to properly classify the
32-year-old former fertilizer salesman, a process that could take several
"Grade B" prisoners, deemed a threat to themselves or others, get limited
privileges - just 10 hours a week of outdoor exercise, alone in a small
"From what I hear, he hasn't given the staff (at the jail in Redwood City)
any problems," Thornton said, so this classification may be unlikely for
"Grade A" inmates are allowed to spend five hours of every day outside in
a common yard, where they can exercise, play chess and basketball.
They get offered showers three times a week. They also may keep a
television, which they pay for themselves, in their cell, they receive
mail, phone calls and visitors. They also may attend religious services
Almost all the state's condemned prisoners are housed at San Quentin;
there are also 15 condemned women at the Central California Women's
Facility in Chowchilla. San Quentin also houses 5,300 other prisoners, but
they don't interact at all with the condemned inmates.
Death row, built in 1934 and designed to handle 68 inmates, is actually 3
In the original death row, now reserved for the most senior and
well-behaved men, inmates walk around a small common area secured by bars
and doors that included such amenities as a tiled shower room.
In one of the makeshift death rows, a building known as East Block where
Peterson will most likely live - cells are stacked in tiers fronted by
narrow walkways that can't be used as common areas, so inmates are always
locked in their 5-by-9-foot cells, except when they're outside.
There is no shower room, so two regular cells on each tier have been
converted into showers. Plastic sheeting taped to the bars keeps most of
the water from spraying onto the tiers below, but a steady stream of water
slides down nonetheless.
A new $220 million death row has been proposed. It would hold 1,000 men
and replace the current patchwork of dilapidated - and in some cases
near-antique - facilities with a modern, security conscious design.
But given the way the courts work in California, there's no telling
whether Peterson will ever recieve that lethal injection. Most deaths on
death row in California happen as a result of natural causes, or at the
hands of other inmates. Peterson will likely sit for more than 5 years
before he is appointed an attorney for his 1st, mandatory appeal to the
California Supreme Court.
Of the 38 states with the death penalty, California moves the slowest
A big reason for the delays is that there are too many inmates with too
few lawyers willing to volunteer for the relatively low-paying job. A
condemned Peterson would join about 120 others who do not yet have
lawyers. And even when an attorney is appointed, there are no deadlines
for California's high court to act.
(source: Associated Press)
More information about the DeathPenalty