[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----ALA., IOWA, MD., OHIO
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Nov 6 23:55:15 CST 2005
A death penalty conversion
"The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of
someone who has done great evil." Pope John Paul II, a statement by the
late pope in 1999
In his last moments of life, John Peoples smiled, lifted a thumb toward
his brother Gerry and said a few final words: "I hope I've handled
everything ... with dignity."
Peoples lay his head back on the gurney. A chaplain knelt beside him and
held his hand. Peoples' lips moved along with the chaplain's prayer.
Then, the state of Alabama killed him.
As the 1st drugs entered his veins, Peoples gasped twice and went still.
For the next 15 minutes, as more poisons flowed into his body, the color
of life slowly drained from his face.
Peoples was put to death for murdering Paul and Judy Franklin and their
10-year-old son, Paul Jr. Prosecutors said he killed the Franklins in 1983
to get their red Corvette. Authorities couldn't determine how Paul
Franklin died. Judy Franklin and Paul Jr. were beaten to death with a
The family's loved ones and friends waited 22 years to see Peoples die for
his crime. Their long wait for justice ended Sept. 22 at 6:27 p.m. Peoples
was the 737th person the state of Alabama has executed - the 10th by
"I think we do it as dignified and humane as you can execute a person,"
said Grantt Culliver, the warden of Holman Correctional Facility and, as
such, the state's executioner. "There's no glory in it. It's a matter of
It's a matter of law that deeply troubles The News' editorial board. After
decades of supporting the death penalty, the editorial board no longer can
do so. Today and over the next five days, we will explain our change of
mind and heart.
We know that many of our readers, including families and friends of murder
victims, will disagree. We acknowledge we cannot grasp the profound grief
experienced by those who lose loved ones in senseless, savage killings. We
well understand some crimes are so great that those who commit them don't
deserve to live in the free world ever again, and that some don't deserve
to live at all. Yet we can no longer in good conscience continue to
advocate the death penalty in Alabama.
A broken system:
Why? Because we have come to believe Alabama's capital punishment system
is broken. And because, first and foremost, this newspaper's editorial
board is committed to a culture of life.
Put simply, supporting the death penalty is inconsistent with our
convictions about the value of life, convictions that are evident in our
editorial positions opposing abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and
euthanasia. We believe all life is sacred. And in embracing a culture of
life, we cannot make distinctions between those we deem "innocents" and
those flawed humans who populate death row.
Faith tells us we all are imperfect, but we're not beyond redemption. We
believe it's up to God to say when a life has no more purpose on this
We are not turning soft on crime. Remember, the alternative to the death
penalty is not leaving predators free to kill again. The alternative to
execution is life in prison without any chance, ever, for parole. That is
enough to protect the public.
"We don't have to execute people to prove we are outraged about a crime,"
said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative
of Alabama, a Montgomery nonprofit group that defends death row inmates.
Even people who embraced the death penalty in the past are having second
thoughts. One is George Ryan, the Republican former governor of Illinois
who commuted all the death sentences in his state after a string of
exonerations. Another is U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative
Republican from Pennsylvania who has expressed growing reservations about
the nation's use of the death penalty. "I still see it as potentially
valuable," he said, "but I would be one to urge more caution than I would
have in the past."
Some of the most poignant reflections on the issue came from the late Pope
John Paul II, who shifted Catholic Church teaching on the death penalty
and spoke pointedly against capital punishment.
"The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are
unconditionally pro-life, who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the
Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing
recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even
in the case of someone who has done great evil," the pope said in 1999.
No doubt, some sincerely believe executing killers shows reverence for the
lives of victims. But how much regard does a society hold for life if it
uses the death penalty in a haphazard fashion? This is a crucial question
- and one that must matter to Alabamians.
While a strong majority of Alabamians support capital punishment in
theory, a number of them have misgivings about the death penalty in
practice. More than seven in 10 Alabamians strongly support capital
punishment, according to a July survey of 863 people by the Alabama
Education Association's Capital Survey Research Center.
Yet almost 6 in 10 among those polled say they want the death penalty
halted while the state studies questions of fairness and reliability. Only
47 % believe the death penalty is applied fairly in Alabama, according to
the poll. But the most troubling number is this: 80 % of those polled
think the state could execute someone who is not guilty.
There is plenty of reason to fear that possibility. In the past dozen
years, 5 men have walked free from Alabama's death row - not because they
escaped, but because juries acquitted them in new trials or prosecutors
dropped charges. Across the nation, more than 120 people have been
released from death row, some of them having come harrowingly close to
A startling number of death penalty cases are also overturned because of
errors in the prosecution and trial. A massive study in 2000 by Columbia
University Law School professors put the national error rate for capital
cases at 68 % and at 77 % in this state. Incompetent defense lawyers,
prosecutors suppressing evidence, misinstruction of juries, and biased
judges and jurors led to most reversals, the study found.
2 professors at John Jay College attacked the Columbia figures because the
study made no distinction between errors on conviction and sentencing.
Even as they estimated a national error rate of 27 % for conviction, they
noted Alabama's conviction reversals during the study period were higher
than 60 %.
Then-Attorney General Bill Pryor criticized the Columbia study because it
covered the years 1973 to 1995, but did not take into account cases from
1995 through 2000. During those years, Pryor wrote, "so-called" error
rates for each phase of the capital process ranged from 3 % to 14 %. But
he reported error rates only from each phase of the process, and not the
overall error rate, which would be much higher.
When possibly innocent lives are at stake, even Pryor's figures are too
Some say overturned cases are a sign the system works, or that it shows
how much scrutiny death penalty cases receive. That's true, to a point.
But it should be no comfort to death penalty supporters that in the
process leading to execution, mistakes are so common.
As a result of these kinds of questions, some states have halted
executions and/or embarked on serious studies about the death penalty.
More than a dozen states either have done or are doing death penalty
studies, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty
Information Center in Washington, D.C. California is among those just
launching a broad review of the death penalty, he said.
The most noted example is Illinois. In 2000, a series of exonerations led
then-Gov. Ryan, a supporter of capital punishment, to declare a moratorium
on executions, create a study commission and ultimately commute the
sentences of all 167 people facing the death penalty in his state.
The moratorium remains in place, and Illinois lawmakers have since passed
a number of the reforms recommended by Ryan's commission on capital
punishment. Among other things, the state limited the number of crimes
that result in a death sentence, improved police procedures, created
pretrial hearings to determine the credibility of jailhouse informants,
and established a method for courts to toss out death sentences in the
interest of "fundamental justice."
At the heart of what has happened in Illinois and elsewhere - including
Alabama - are disturbing questions about the fallibility of our justice
Cases where inmates have been convicted and later cleared challenge
long-held notions about the reliability of eyewitness identification, the
use of jailhouse snitches and, in some cases, the integrity of police and
prosecutors. These cases highlight other problems as well, such as
incompetent and/or inadequate legal defense, and the role race plays.
While these questions apply to all criminal cases, they are particularly
troubling in death penalty cases where mistakes can go, literally, to the
grave. At the very least, we should be assured the ultimate punishment is
inflicted fairly and accurately. That's not the case.
Alabama has one of the nation's broadest capital punishment laws, allowing
the death penalty for 18 varieties of murder. Despite the sizable number
of murders that qualify, only a fraction end up with a death sentence.
The factors that determine which cases end with death are arbitrary. The
prestige and wealth of defendants, the quality of their defense, even the
race of their victims can play into the outcome of a case. While blacks
are far more likely to be murder victims, the overwhelming number of
murders that lead to a death sentence involve victims who are white.
Many other problems exist.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2002, Alabama
had condemned and executed killers who were mentally retarded. Before the
high court struck down the execution of juvenile offenders this year, the
state had sent people to death row for crimes they committed when they
were as young as 16. In addition, some inmates who have been executed and
others still on death row have had histories of serious mental illnesses.
Even when capital defendants are mentally sound, they are usually poor.
This means they can't afford to hire their own lawyers or mount a vigorous
defense. They rely largely on court-appointed attorneys who make less than
the going rate and whose skills can be hit-or-miss.
"It's better to be rich and guilty than innocent and poor," said Richard
Jaffe, a criminal defense lawyer in Birmingham who has represented a
number of capital defendants.
As important as a strong defense is to anyone accused of a crime, it's
decidedly more important for those charged with capital crimes. It's not
just that the stakes are so high, but emotions are, too. The most heinous
crimes often create a public outcry that may tempt police and prosecutors
to take shortcuts. These are the cases where people may be most at risk
for a wrongful conviction.
And yet, 70 % of those on Alabama's death row were convicted when defense
lawyers were capped at $1,000 in pay for out-of-court work - a critical
stage of any defense that should involve hundreds of hours of
investigation, legwork and legal preparation.
But at least the state has some system for providing for the legal
defense, however spotty, of death penalty defendants at trial. There is no
such system of assuring lawyers for defendants for the crucial 2nd and 3rd
round of appeals where miscarriages of justice are most often uncovered.
These cases are spread out largely among a small collection of nonprofit
defense firms and volunteer lawyers. Some defendants luck out with great
appeals lawyers; others have missed filing deadlines for appeals because
they had no lawyer at all. Who gets a thorough and top-notch review on
appeals is mostly a matter of chance.
Despite these problems, Alabama Attorney General Troy King said, "We have
a system that works as well as any in the world."
At the end of the day, we grant King this: Most of those on death row
indeed are guilty. They committed vicious crimes, terrorizing old people,
even children. They cut precious lives short and forever altered the lives
of grieving survivors.
"Those victims have had the most horrible things happen to them, and we
speak for them," said Talladega County District Attorney Steve Giddens.
We hear the profound sorrow in the voices of those left behind, people
like Judy Franklin's brother Bill Choron and his wife, Gail, who in
September went to Holman to watch John Peoples die.
The Chorons believe Peoples died an easy death compared to his victims.
"It's not easy to watch a man die," Gail Choron said after witnessing
Peoples' last breath. "But it's not easy to think about what he did to
deserve this death."
The Equal Justice Initiative's Stevenson argues the question is not
whether these killers merit the state's ultimate punishment.
"The question has to be not whether they deserve to die," he said. "The
question is, do we deserve to kill?"
The News' editorial board strongly believes the answer to that question is
(source: Opinion, The Birmingham News)
Republicans itching to discuss the death penalty
Although the words 'death penalty' don't appear on the agenda of a
legislative committee meeting this week to look at sex offender laws, the
issue is certain to come up if Republicans on the panel have their way.
GOP leaders are itching for an election-year death penalty confrontation
with Democrats, hoping the emotional issue will push Republicans into
clear control of the Legislature. GOP senators - forced to share power
with Democrats in the 25-25 Senate - are especially aggressive.
They're hoping this week's bipartisan committee meeting will be Act One in
a saga that culminates on Election Day. But with the legislature divided
and a death penalty opponent in the governor's office, the plot is more
about politics than policy.
And it hardly will be a first-run drama.
Just this past spring a Republican drive for reinstatement of the death
penalty collapsed when Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council
Bluffs refused to allow a vote on the issue. And 2005's misfire was just
the latest in a string of ill-fated attempts to reinstate capital
punishment in a state that dismantled its gallows in 1965.
Death penalty debates usually flare in the wake of a high-profile tragedy,
and the latest is no exception. This time, a registered sex offender is
accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering 10-year-old
Jetseta Gage of Cedar Rapids.
Gage's death in March prompted lawmakers to approve a bipartisan package
of tougher penalties for sex offenders, including longer sentences for
pedophiles and stepped up efforts to monitor offenders who are released
But top Republicans say it's not enough. They want the death penalty for
criminals who kidnap and murder children. They argue kidnappers would
think twice about murdering a victim to cover up the crime if capital
punishment were possible.
They also believe voters will think twice about voting for Democratic
candidates who oppose such a punishment. Polls show a clear majority of
Iowans favor the death penalty in limited circumstances.
Democrats have always had a tough time finding their party's true identity
on the death penalty issue.
Bill Clinton's support for capital punishment rode that "moderate" image
to 2 terms in the White House. But John Kerry sputtered and stumbled early
in his campaign as he tried to reconcile his opposition to the death
penalty with the new realities of mass terrorism. He ended up looking
weak-kneed. The lesson from Kerry's experience is that standing on
principle is better than trying to windsurf around the issue.
Democrats should be asking a simple question: Why should Iowa reinstate
capital punishment when the rest of the country seems to be backing away?
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group critical of
capital punishment, the number of state executions in the United States
has dropped from a high of 98 in 1999 to 41 in 2005.
Illinois' capital punishment moratorium remains in place. Courts in New
York and Kansas ruled those states' death penalties unconstitutional. New
York has declined to put the penalty back on the books.
During the past 3 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has pared back the death
penalty by barring states from executing juveniles and the mentally
Reams of evidence suggest that too often the death penalty is racially
biased and poorly administered. Since 1973, according to the center, 121
people in 25 states have been released from death row after evidence of
their innocence was uncovered.
Iowa death penalty proponents contend they can create a limited, fail-safe
system that protects vulnerable Iowans and delivers justice to the most
But they'll need more than opinion polls to break their legislative losing
(source: Missouri Valley Times-News)
Steele Still Working On The Death Penalty Report
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele said he is still working on a formal
report on the death penalty.
Steele, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, made a campaign promise
nearly three years ago to address racial bias in the state's use of
Ehrlich signed a death warrant Friday for Wesley E. Baker, the death row
inmate whose execution was stayed in 2002 to give researchers time to
study racial and other inequities in the way the state handles the death
The warrant orders what would be the state's first execution in more than
a year to take place during the five-day period beginning Dec. 5.
Steele spoke about the issue Friday while campaigning for U.S. Senate,
saying that he remains steadfastly opposed to the death penalty and that
he has voiced those views to the governor regarding the Baker case. Steele
said he plans to send a memo to the governor outlining his concerns about
the way the death penalty is applied.
"I know a lot of people think I've forgotten. I have not," Steele said. "I
am a man of my word on that. This is a big issue, an important issue, for
me and a lot of others, I know. I don't run away from any issue. I'm not
dancing around on this at all."
Still, the lieutenant governor's inaction on the subject has disappointed
death penalty opponents, who once viewed him as a potentially critical
"I am disappointed," Jane Henderson , executive director of Maryland
Citizens Against State Executions. "We had been very excited that we had
someone openly opposed to the death penalty elected to statewide office.
But it hasn't made any difference at all."
(source: Associated Press)
Tests can unshroud the truth
I'll never forget the vision of John Spirko's eyes peering through the
food slot in his death row cell block.
The year was 1995, and Ohio hadn't executed an inmate in 32 years when
colleague Tom Beyerlein and I traveled to Mansfield to write a series on
Spirko wasn't on the list of inmates we were scheduled to interview, but
he called out to us. His eyes darted around the narrow slit as swiftly and
nervously as a hummingbird's.
Wary. Piercing. Accusing.
I couldn't help feeling skeptical when Spirko, convicted of the 1982
slaying of Elgin postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger, professed his innocence.
I'd heard such a thing before. "Like many of his death row neighbors,
Spirko says he didn't do it," we wrote of our encounter.
But Spirko now appears to have a powerful and troubling case. At the very
least, it merits a closer look.
"This case has the weakest evidence of any death penalty case I've ever
worked on," said Steven Drizin, legal director for the Center on Wrongful
Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law. The center
arranged for a polygraph test to be administered to John Willier, who has
implicated his former boss, Dale Dingus of Findlay, in Mottinger's murder.
Willier identified the blood-drenched murder shroud as a drop cloth
belonging to Dingus, who is now serving a prison sentence for rape.
Willier passed his lie detector test, prompting Spirko defense attorney
Thomas Hill to ask prosecutors to perform DNA and other tests on the
shroud for the first time. At Spirko's second clemency hearing Oct. 12,
Ohio Parole Board member Slayman N. Bedra said, "We can all agree there
was likely more than one offender, and we owe it to Mrs. Mottinger and her
family to continue the pursuit of justice."
Yet the parole board voted for a 2nd time against the clemency
recommendation, 6 to 3, and Ohio assistant attorney general Charles Wille
seemed curiously uninterested in DNA evidence. He piled on reason after
reason the shroud shouldn't be tested: "The blood on the shroud was so
congealed it couldn't be worked with. In all probability, it was Mrs.
Mottinger's blood. There's no real basis for DNA evidence."
Countered Drizin, "Mr. Wille may be right, but he can't possibly know
that. If you believe Mr. Spirko is guilty he has as much to lose from this
DNA testing as he has to gain. The beauty of DNA evidence is that it
doesn't play favorites."
Kim Norris, spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, said Friday
that Petro's office is considering a defense request that the state test
The state should proceed with the DNA testing.
"Whether or not you believe in the death penalty, this is not the case for
it," Drizin said. "There is simply way too much doubt, and too many
investigative avenues have not been explored. You can't write off Spirko
and say if he's innocent his execution is just the cost of doing business
on death row."
And if we do? Then I'm not the only person who should be haunted by John
Spirko's accusing eyes.
(source: Column, Mary McCarty, Dayton Daily News)
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