death penalty news----TEXAS, USA, FLA., VA., CALIF., OHIO
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Mon Nov 28 17:21:58 CST 2005
Cantu case as Texas benchmark----Many more like him
I am actively opposed to capital punishment. For the past 10 years, I've
written to and visited men on Texas' death row and have gotten to know
them and their families.
If asked and when I'm able to, I try my best to assist their attorneys.
Thus, I was especially intrigued by the responses I've heard to the
Chronicle's reports about the possible wrongful execution of Ruben Cantu.
For example, one common response is to ask how someone can be sentenced to
death based largely upon the testimony of one witness who didn't get a
good look - a case where there was no solid physical evidence, some minor
circumstantial evidence, and based mostly on the testimony of one
understandably scared and confused witness.
This is a great question.
However - and in no way to diminish the horror of Cantu 's possible
wrongful execution - there are many men on Texas' death row who were
sentenced to death under similar circumstances: no solid physical
evidence, questionable circumstantial evidence and no eyewitnesses.
Their death sentences were based solely upon the testimony of motivated
WARD LARKIN - Houston
All capable of error
Congratulations to the Chronicle for its fine Nov. 23 editorial, "Death
penalty doubts / The case of Ruben Cantu may provide the smoking gun
capital punishment opponents have sought in Texas: the execution of an
Too bad it is still too early in Texas to advocate abolition of the death
penalty, since that is the only sure way to avoid the killing of the
Prosecutors, defense lawyers, witnesses and juries, like other people, all
can make mistakes.
DALE HARRISON - The Woodlands
(source: Opinion, Houston Chronicle, Nov. 27)
Execution in 1993 raises serious issues
Did the state kill an innocent man when Ruben Cantu was executed for
capital murder on Aug. 24, 1993?
Houston Chronicle reporter Lise Olsen raised serious questions about the
San Antonio case in recent news stories on the 1984 crime for which Cantu
Cantu, who was 17 at the time of the crime, claimed he was framed but no
one believed him.
Now, more than 12 years after his death, an eyewitness has recanted,
saying he was pressured by police to identify Cantu. A co-defendant claims
Cantu was not with him the night of the murder, but he allowed his friend
to be falsely accused.
Prosecutors lacked physical evidence tying Cantu to the crime.
Sending a defendant to his death based on such evidence seems incredible,
but it happens more often than we would like to think.
Inadequate DNA testing and faulty eyewitness identification have been two
principal factors in many of the cases that have resulted in the release
of wrongfully convicted felons and death row inmates over the last several
In June, Gov. Rick Perry appointed a nine-member Criminal Justice Advisory
Council to review the Texas criminal justice system. Its mission is to
make recommendations on improving the system to protect victims and those
falsely accused of crimes.
The report is being finalized and will be presented to the governor by the
end of the year.
Texas Criminal Court of Appeals Justice Barbara Hervey of San Antonio, a
member of the commission, said one of the areas of the law the report will
address is eyewitness identification and procedures.
She said she has been closely following eyewitness identification
procedure changes in other states that call for double-blind
identification, where the person presenting photos to a witness is unaware
of the suspect's identity.
The commission also is asking for tweaking of the state law giving
convicted felons in prison easier access to DNA testing, she said.
The 151,443 prisoners in the Texas prison system, including the 410
inmates on death row, make the work of the commission extremely important.
Texas' criminal justice system is far from perfect and is in dire need of
Still, the recommendations the commission will make to the governor are
going to be just that - recommendations.
During the last legislative session, there was little support in this
tough-on-crime state for the re-creation of a state innocence commission
to review wrongful convictions.
But in a state with one of the most used death chambers in the country,
state officials cannot continue to ignore the problems.
The justice commission's report will be coming out just as the political
season in Texas begins to heat up for the spring primaries.
We urge the governor and lawmakers not to use the commission's work as
merely campaign fodder.
These issues, as the Cantu case illustrates, need serious attention.
(source: Editorial, San Antonio Express-News)
Death row: Does personal reform count?----A clemency request in California
revives the debate over rehabilitation's role.
Exactly 229 death-row inmates have been granted clemency since the United
States reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and the list of reasons is
short. The 16 governors who have given such pardons cited just 3 reasons:
lingering doubt about guilt, a governor's own philosophical opposition to
the death penalty, and mental disability of the accused.
Starkly absent from the list - notable because of a high-profile clemency
request now pending in California - is character reform of the guilty. As
in the 2000 Texas case of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker, who
experienced a death-row religious conversion and became a model inmate,
the case of Stanley "Tookie" Williams is reviving the debate over
rehabilitation and its role in the US penal system.
Mr. Williams, cofounder of the notorious L.A. street gang the Crips and a
4-time murderer, has been in prison since 1981. Since then, he has become
an antigang crusader whose work earned him several Nobel Peace Prize
His appeal for clemency on the claim of personal redemption poses a
personal, political, and philosophical dilemma for Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger (R), who must decide before Dec. 13 whether Williams will
live or die. Like governors before him, notably George W. Bush of Texas,
who proclaimed one such decision "the most agonizing part of being
governor," Mr. Schwarzenegger is finding that clemency cases can ignite
intense passions - and often leave large blocs of voters feeling
aggrieved, no matter how the decision comes down.
A high-profile clemency decision also immediately confronts Virginia Gov.
Mark Warner (D). He has denied such petitions from 11 other death-row
prisoners, but activists working on behalf of Robin Lovitt say the fact
that DNA evidence in his case was improperly destroyed - and might have
exonerated him - is enough to merit a commutation to a life sentence. If
the execution proceeds as scheduled Wednesday, Mr. Lovitt would become the
1,000th person to die under death-penalty laws since 1976.
Grants of clemency have declined in the past 25 years, with about 1,000
death-row inmates having sought it and 229 receiving it. Of those, 167
came from one governor in one act in 2000: former Gov. George Ryan of
Illinois, who called the death-penalty system in his state "arbitrary and
capricious and therefore immoral." His action has since been excoriated by
victims' families and lawmakers, even as it is lauded by death-penalty
"We as a country have been dramatically changing our notions about
clemency and the death penalty in the past half decade," says Richard
Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes
capital punishment and analyzes death-penalty trends. After 2 decades of
meting out death sentences at a steady rate of about 300 a year, the
nation has seen that number fall by one-third since 2000.
Much of that shift can be attributed to advances in DNA testing and other
technology, which have exposed shortcomings in the legal proceedings that
put people on death row, say Mr. Dieter and others.
The decision awaiting Schwarzenegger is complex since Williams has aimed
to both cast doubt on his conviction and persuade the governor that he has
become a changed man behind bars.
"This is a terribly difficult decision - not just because of all the
competing considerations, from the political to the spiritual - but
because there are no clear guidelines given to governors," says Robert
Batey, professor of criminal law at Stetson University College of Law in
Laws differ in the 38 states with clemency provisions. Some require boards
or commissions to make recommendations or to act in tandem with the
In other states the governor alone decides, with no legal, ethical, or
moral criteria spelled out for guidance.
"Governors ... can decide not only whether a person is redeemed or not,
[but] they can decide [inmates] have changed and put them to death
anyway," says Professor Batey. "In the case of Mr. Schwarzenegger, it's up
to him to create his own reasons."
The origin of clemency in the US predates the Constitution and was
considered a necessary corrective to the severity of the criminal-justice
system of the day. It has been revisited and sharpened regularly ever
since. "Clemency is an act of grace," wrote Chief Justice John Marshall in
1833, and Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1927: "[It] is part of the
Constitutional scheme. When granted it is the determination of the
ultimate authority that the public welfare be better served by inflicting
less than what the judgment fixed."
Exactly how to define and weigh the public welfare is Schwarzenegger's
prerogative, experts say. Beyond the consideration of Williams's personal
fate, the governor must weigh the consequences, symbolic and otherwise, to
"If he goes ahead and puts to death a man who has clearly shown he has
turned himself around, [and] is not the man he once was, what does that
say to all other prisoners who are similarly incarcerated and are trying
to reform themselves - that personal reform doesn't matter?" asks Jan
Handzlik, a member of Williams's defense team.
Similarly, what message does a commuted death sentence send to prosecutors
and law-enforcement officers, who daily work to fulfill the requirements
of the legal system to obtain proper prosecutions? Or to victims' families
and other convicts?
"It sends the worst signal to the criminal element if you commute
someone," says Michael Paranzino, who runs a nonpartisan research group
dedicated to crime victims and their families. "What are other criminals
supposed to think ... that if you suddenly write poetry, say all the right
things, and find a champion on the outside that you get a 'get out of jail
Because of all this, "clemency is a very lonely decision," says Margaret
Love, former head of the pardon office in the US Justice Department. "It
is a question of how to blend mercy with justice, the human and the legal
in light of all circumstances before you, with life on the line."
States' clemency rules
- 33 states give their governors exclusive, unconditional power to grant
pardons or reduce prison sentences.
-- Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, and Texas have stripped their
governors of the power to pardon and instead established clemency boards,
whose members are appointed by the governor.
-- In 9 states, the governor can only consider clemency recommendations
issued by a clemency board.
-- In Nebraska, Nevada, and Utah, the governor sits as a member of a
pardoning board, making clemency decisions in cooperation with board
(source: Christian Science Monitor)
There's no evidence executions make society any safer -- Re: The death
penalty's fatal flaws, editorial, Nov. 23.
The upcoming 1,000th execution since the states began to kill again in
1977 gives us pause to take a good look at our imperfect and expensive
death penalty system. Since 1973, we have exonerated 122 people off our
death rows due to evidence of wrongful convictions. Florida has exonerated
more than 20.
As in the Ruben Cantu case, evidence is growing that innocent people have
been executed. In Florida we have the alternative of life without the
possibility of parole. When a mistake is made, we can at least give the
wrongfully convicted some of their life back. Once we kill them, it is too
late. There is no "instant replay rule" for executions.
There is absolutely no proof whatsoever that killing a few already
locked-up prisoners makes us any safer. What message do we send when we
legitimize and praise the virtue of unnecessary killing out of anger and
We Floridians spend millions of dollars every year over and above the cost
of permanent incarceration just to perpetuate our hugely expensive death
penalty system. We contract and pay dearly for these few state killings.
This money would be much better spent on providing real help and
assistance to murder victims' families. These millions could also provide
for more law-enforcement officers and other proven crime-prevention
resources that would truly make us, our families and our communities safer
without the risk of executing an innocent person.
-- Mark Elliott, Clearwater
Death penalty raises many questions ---- Re: Death penalty's fatal flaws,
Your editorial regarding the death sentence and subsequent execution in
Texas of Ruben Cantu, who was a teenager when convicted, certainly should
provoke serious thought in the minds of those who claim to support
Many years ago, I came to grips with the reality that because of the
inequities in the criminal justice system, a death sentence and execution
will always raise some doubt. Even a resonable doubt is too much doubt
when taking someone's life. I am aware, however, that many actual
murderers have been executed for their crimes and this has brought some
measure of closure for the victims' families.
I have to ask, though, how authentic can justice be if the wrong person is
executed? As a juror, could you live with the reality you may have voted
to have the state kill someone who did not commit the crime? These are the
harsh realities of a penalty that has no "do over."
The point of my letter is not to debate whether the death penalty is right
or wrong for society, but to raise questions about how and why it is
implemented in such an arbitrary manner. If the system can be so sure that
an individual is guilty that it would take his life, how then can so many
doubts be raised years later? There is no room for an "oops" when the
state practices taking away the God-given gift of life.
-- Floyd L. Watkins, Tampa
A miscarriage of justice ---- Re: The death penalty's fatal flaws
I read the investigative report on the Cantu case in the Houston
Chronicle. It is a travesty of justice that the San Antonio police
intimidated a witness to get revenge on Cantu for shooting and wounding a
police officer in an unrelated incident and getting away with it.
This case was a miscarriage of justice, and the citizens of this country
must do all they can to make sure that persons sentenced to death deserve
However, I am more concerned about the innocent people who are killed by
murderers who are not executed and eventually get out of prison to kill
again. This occurs hundreds of times for each person executed in error.
-- David Meyer, Bushnell
Torture deserves condemnation -- Re: We mustn't lose ourselves in the face
of this danger, Nov. 20.
Congratulations to Martin Dyckman for his excellent article on torture. It
takes courage to tell it like it is.
In addition, some Christians who hesitate to voice a strong condemnation
of torture, thinking it might make the world a safer, freer place, need to
look in the mirror and repeat one of their favorite slogans: What would
-- Beverley Thorpe Combs, St. Petersburg
(source: Letters to the Editor, St Petersburg Times)
Group Urges Virginia Gov. Mark Warner Not to Reward Unrepentant Killer
Robin Lovitt with Clemency from Death Penalty
Contact: Michael Paranzino of Throw Away The Key, 202-253-4863,
media at throwawaythekey.org
Throw Away The Key, an education and advocacy group that works to reduce
crime rates, today urged Virginia Gov. Mark Warner to resist calls from
wealthy advocates trying to protect the life of convicted and unrepentant
killer Robin Lovitt.
Lovitt killed pool hall worker Clayton Dicks in Arlington, Va. on Nov. 18,
1998 with a pair of scissors during a robbery. He then went to his
cousin's house where they broke open the stolen cash drawer and divided
the money. The scissors were found between the pool hall and the cousin's
house, and an eyewitness testified he was 80 percent sure it was Lovitt he
saw stabbing Dicks to death. Parolee Lovitt, caught red-handed with the
cash drawer, claimed he stumbled upon the stabbing, saw the cash drawer
and grabbed it and ran. A jailhouse informer claimed that Lovitt admitted
killing Dicks because Dicks could identify him, since Lovitt had worked at
the pool hall. Another pool hall employee testified that Lovitt had showed
her how to use scissors to open the cash drawer months earlier.
"Gov. Warner must decide whether he is on the side of the working families
of Virginia who face violent crime in their neighborhoods, or on the side
of an unrepentant killer," said Michael Paranzino, president of Throw Away
The Key. "By executing Lovitt for his cold-blooded killing, Virginia will
demonstrate that Clayton Dicks mattered, even though he was just an
'Average Joe,' and also that murderers and other thugs are not welcome in
the Old Dominion State."
Lovitt has lost round after round of court appeals, despite receiving
hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of pro bono work from some of the
nation's leading attorneys. Now, his attorneys are trying to seize on the
accidental destruction of the murder weapon after the trial, in a
last-ditch effort to confuse the Governor about Lovitt's guilt and win a
reprieve for a killer.
Other Governors have faced such situations. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton refused
clemency for a killer with similarly well-heeled advocates, and went on to
serve eight years as President of the United States. Former Governor
Michael Dukakis furloughed a killer before his failed presidential run.
Paranzino added: "If Governor Warner is considering granting clemency in
this case, he should at least have the courage to make the announcement
standing beside Clayton Dicks' tombstone, as Lovitt granted Dicks no
clemency. Governor Warner should stand with crime victims and deny
clemency to this killer."
To learn more about the nonpartisan, nonprofit Throw Away The Key, visit
their website at http://www.throwawaythekey.org.
(source: U.S. Newswire)
Challenges greet panel overseeing state lab
The state forensic lab approaches a milestone Tuesday as members of a
newly created scientific advisory panel gather for the 1st time.
Its imperative that the panel function as more than a rubber stamp. Only
then will it bolster confidence in a lab recently dogged by controversy,
despite its reputation as a national leader in the field.
The General Assembly created the scientific group in the wake of evidence
that the lab mishandled DNA in the case of exonerated death-row inmate
Earl Washington Jr. Despite insistence by lab director Paul Ferrara that
no error occurred, a seven-month audit by a national accrediting agency
affirmed that the lab incorrectly eliminated a convicted rapist as the
source of genetic material left on the victim's body.
A subsequent review by an audit team selected by Appeals Court Judge
Robert Humphreys, at the governor's request, looked at the lab's work in
dozens of other cases. That less-intensive, 3-month review recommended a
number of procedural improvements but detected only a single substantial
One of the first items of business for the new panel will be reviewing the
second audit. Here are two omissions that ought to be addressed:
First, the auditors failed to detect what some experts say was a glaring
error in the case of Leon Jermain Winston, sentenced to death for a
Lynchburg double murder.
In 2002 an analyst at the lab tested genetic material on a gun and a glove
against the DNA of Winston and several other people. Consistent with lab
policy at the time, she included a random sample from a convicted
offender, whose genetic profile she did not know. If the test results for
the random sample correctly matched the profile for the convicted
offender, then that would bolster confidence in the accuracy of the
But when the analyst encountered problems with the random-sample results,
she deviated from accepted scientific practice in two ways. At a couple of
points, rather than re-test to resolve discrepancies in the random-sample
results, she simply marked the results on Winston and the others
Even worse, according to her lab notes, when she obtained results that
didn't match the profile of the convicted offender, she plugged in
findings obtained from a different test run. Thats a serious scientific
"Every science teacher will tell you, if your control fails, you repeat
the test," said Betty Layne DesPortes, a Richmond attorney who chairs the
jurisprudence section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a
national organization of forensic science professionals. The audit should
have picked up the problem, she said.
Humphreys requested a response from the audit team weeks ago but hasnt yet
gotten one. Since the chair of the team, DNA identity expert Arthur
Eisenberg of North Texas University, sits on the scientific advisory
panel, an explanation of why the team didnt address the issue should be
easily available Tuesday.
Second, the panel should address the way scientific evidence gets
presented in court. The audit team wasnt directly asked to extend its
review to the courtroom and didnt. But the case of Robin Lovitt, scheduled
for execution Wednesday, illustrates why that's a problem.
A lab analyst tested scissors presumed to be the murder weapon and a
jacket worn by Lovitt. The tests revealed an extremely remote possibility
that a stain on the scissors came from Lovitt; there was much stronger,
though inconclusive, scientific evidence that blood on the jacket came
from Lovitt himself, not the victim.
Yet the prosecutor got away with intimating that Lovitts sweat stained the
scissors and that the blood on the jacket was the victims. Did the analyst
play a role in creating the misconceptions? Given the life-and-death
stakes, that's a legitimate inquiry.
In many ways, Virginia's state forensic lab deserves its reputation for
quality, but high standards demand constant vigilance. Every organization
benefits from oversight. The scientific advisory panel has a solemn duty
to make sure that the lab gets it.
NAACP Steps Up Efforts to Save Stanley Tookie Williams----California Gov.
Schwarzenegger is asked to grant clemency to former gang leader who has
been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
Bruce S. Gordon, President & CEO, National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People (NAACP), said today that California Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger should spare the life of Stanley Tookie Williams, who is
scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on December 13. Williams, who
maintains his innocence, has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace
Prize and four times for the Nobel Prize for Literature for his series of
acclaimed childrens books.
Gordon said: "The NAACP asks Gov. Schwarzenegger to act with courage and
exercise the power of his office to grant clemency to Stanley Williams."
Gordon said the NAACP will lead a multi-city two-week crusade to convince
Schwarzenegger that Williams should live to continue his work in helping
young people make positive choices and avoid the gang life that he once
lived. Williams, a co-founder of the Crips gang, has won international and
national recognition for the 10 books he wrote urging youths to stay away
In a series of rallies, prayer vigils and news conferences in California
from San Diego to Sacramento, the NAACP will focus public attention on the
Williams case. Schwarzenegger has agreed to meet Dec. 8 with Williams'
lawyers, Los Angeles County prosecutors and others involved in the case to
consider whether to grant clemency. He has refused to meet with the NAACP.
Gordon said: "I am convinced that our community is best served if Stan is
alive and contributing to the guidance of our youth. He is a one-of-a-kind
human asset who needs to exercise his unique ability to touch the lives of
On Saturday, Gordon met privately with Williams for 2 1/2 hours at the San
Quentin prison death house where he has lived since 1981. During the
meeting, Gordon said Williams committed to working with the NAACP to reach
young people who might be influenced to join gangs. Gordon, who became
president of the NAACP in August, said reaching out to young people is a
key priority in his administration. "He is our new partner," he said.
"He's our secret weapon in the fight to help young African Americans
reject gangs. Williams will have a powerful impact not just in Los
Angeles, not just in California, but throughout our nation."
The NAACP has long opposed the death penalty and has called for a
moratorium on executions until questions about the reliability and
fairness of capital punishment have been answered and it is certain that
the process does not discriminate. There are documented cases that show
the death penalty has been applied differently depending on the race of
the offender and the victim.
Gordon said that based upon the assessment of the NAACP legal staff; there
is sufficient reason to question Williams' guilt. "We believe that race
impacted the trial that convicted Stan and sentenced him to death," said
Gordon. "However, at this point, the NAACP bases its support for clemency
on the value of Stan's life to the communities the organization
represents. We want to save Stans life so he can save the lives of
The NAACP supports the Petition for Executive Clemency submitted by
Williams legal counsel on November 8, 2005. Included in the petition is a
quote from the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist written in 1998:
"the heart of executive clemency - is to grant clemency as a matter of
grace, thus allowing the executive to consider a wide range of factors not
comprehended by earlier judicial proceedings and sentencing
Four Nobel laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called on
Schwarzenegger to grant clemency for Williams. "Through his work, gang
truces have been mediated and long-standing wounds have been healed. Lives
have been saved," the laureates said in a letter to the governor.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Stanley Williams merits clemency," said
(source: NAACP - Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation's oldest and
largest civil rights organization. Its half-million adult and youth
members throughout the United States and the world are the premier
advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter
mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private
Tookie Williams, Shame and Clemency----Arnold Schwarzenegger's Curious
Stan 'Tookie' Williams is scheduled to be executed in California next
month. Williams helped to found the well-known L.A. street gang, the
Crips, in 1971. In 1981 he was convicted of murdering 4 people in 2
separate armed robberies, and sentenced to death row at San Quentin State
While in prison, Williams has written a number of children's books
focusing on the perils of gang life; he has written an acclaimed memoir,
Blue Rage, Black Redemption; has been nominated multiple times for the
Nobel Prize for both Peace and Literature; and has, by some irony that, we
may hope, will come to the attention of government officials next month,
won a Presidential Call to Service award from George W. Bush in 2005 for
his volunteer efforts to help wayward youth.
The prosecutor in Williams' trial eliminated three potential African-
American jurors, resulting in a nearly all-white jury. The California
Supreme Court had twice censured the same prosecutor for discriminatory
practices. During the trial, the same prosecutor made several racist
comparisons of Williams to an 'animal' stalking in the 'jungle'.
One can't help but feel impotent, even ashamed, in offering casual
reflections on the death penalty, when it truly is a life-and-death matter
for others. At the same time, I am not prepared to lead an insurrection to
spring Tookie Williams from his cell, and to simply recite the facts about
his case doesn't seem like much of a service. These facts would be largely
borrowed from countless other sites where they are already easily
accessible. So what's left is 'consciousness raising': a mixture of facts,
persuasion, and communicable outrage.
But let us begin with the requisite stab at difference-making. By all
means, protest. Sign petitions. Help to nominate Williams, again, for the
Nobel Peace Prize. Write to governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
(governor at governor.ca.gov), or call him in Sacramento (916-445-4821), and
implore him to grant clemency. If you get through, you may wish to comment
on the injustice of a world in which a vapid body-builder has, largely by
marrying up, been catapulted into a position in which he, with full force
of law, is to decide whether another human being lives or dies. If you
join the campaign to nominate Williams for the Nobel, you might point out
that he is surely no less suitable a candidate than Kim Jong Il or Henry
Kissinger. These men assuredly have blood on their hands, and have not
done much of anything in the way of repentance. The same cannot be said of
Stan Williams. (Among those who are permitted to make Peace Prize
nominations are "University rectors; professors of social sciences,
history, philosophy, law and theology; directors of peace research
institutes and foreign policy institutes." If you fall into one of these
categories and are willing to co- sponsor the nomination, please send
details to Phil Gasper, Professor of Philosophy, Notre Dame de Namur
University, pgasper at ndnu.edu.)
I have emphasized repeatedly in this space that the details of a
particular death-penalty case should not matter so much in our opposition
to it. Whether the person executed is mentally deficient or a genius,
whether the crime was premeditated or an act of fleeting passion, whether
the prisoner denies the crime or admits it, the death penalty is always
and equally a perversion, a malignancy, and it by itself ensures that the
United States will remain outside of the civilized world, behind Turkey,
Turkmenistan, Cambodia, and Liberia, but in good company with China, North
Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Dostoyevsky said that you can tell what a nation is like by the way it
treats its prisoners. If this is true, a nation whose government continues
to engage in ritual human sacrifice, of victims culled largely from an
underprivileged minority, is certainly as open to scrutiny as one that
relies on Subarctic labor camps to maintain its iron-fisted grip on power.
I am often told that it is a cheap rhetorical ploy to bring up human
sacrifice in connection with the death penalty. So allow me briefly to
explain just how apposite this description is. The president's annual
pardoning of a turkey at Thanksgiving is covered in the media as a
lighthearted bit of fluff. If there were not actual humans awaiting
clemency, this is what it might well be. But in the current American
context it is in fact a parody of the strange power vested in governors to
decide the earthly fates of death-row prisoners, and it is also an
implicit acknowledgement that the killing of these prisoners is a practice
that bears real, non-jocular comparison to the ritual slaughter of birds
for feasts. (I am not saying that this slaughter of birds is wrong --not
here anyway--, but only that the parallel that the president's ritual
invites us to notice is revealing.)
To riff on Dostoyevsky, our treatment of animals is relevant not just to
the well-being of the animals themselves, but to the moral health of a
society in general. The range of possible ways of treating animals
determines to a large extent our conception of our moral commitments
vis-a-vis other humans. Bush's pardoning of one turkey involves an
implicit validation of the slaughtering of millions of other turkeys. And
it also involves an implicit validation of the parallel system of
pardoning the occasional death-row inmate among the vast majority who are
not so lucky. Most disturbingly, the parody is an acknowledgment of the
arbitrariness of the system of capital punishment.
This system has as its raison d'tre not the simple despatching of unwanted
human beings, but the ritual killing of them. This might explain the prima
facie odd practice of keeping death-row prisoners on close suicide watch.
Why bother if the plan is to execute them anyway? The answer seems to be
that the aim of capital punishment is not to bring it about that death-row
prisoners are dead, but to bring it about that they are, specifically,
killed. In this respect, their deaths resemble the slaughtering of
sacrificial animals more than the extermination of vermin. Nobody, after
all, would object if an exterminator found a method of getting pigeons or
raccoons or rats to commit suicide.
Of course, it matters very little for Williams whether the work of
Schwarzenegger and his collaborators resembles that of an abatteur more
than that of an exterminator. But this conceptual distinction may in the
long run help the anti-death penalty movement to better frame its
argument. We are not dealing with people who simply wish to bring it about
that death-row prisoners are dead by whatever route. We are dealing with
people who want to kill these prisoners, and who appear implicitly to
believe that this is how the order of the cosmos is maintained.
Indeed, commitment to capital punishment is incomprehensible except as the
expression of a folk belief about cosmic justice, about the need to cancel
out violence with violence, etc. Those of us who oppose the death penalty
are too ready to resort to utilitarian arguments about the impracticality
of capital punishment, its failure to function as a deterrent, etc., as if
these got anywhere near the heart of the matter. These arguments are valid
and sound, but entirely irrelevant. For proponents of the death penalty
understand the issue at an entirely different register. They inhabit an
irrational world in which questions of the expected utility of a course of
action can play no part, and it is time to stop trying to argue with them
in terms they do not understand.
If I could, by some miracle, get through to Arnold Schwarzenegger, I would
not appeal to his faculty of reason, but to his sense of shame. I do not
know if he has either of these, but while I've seen positive evidence of
the absence of the former, I am still waiting to discern some deep, buried
germ of the latter. Deep down, he must know he is not in any position but
a technically --and bizarrely-- legal one to give the go-ahead for the
execution of another man. None of us is God, though I can't help but feel
that a man whose entire career has been dedicated to self-promotion and
the pursuit of power is in even less of a position than others to decide
who lives and who dies. And when the man about whom this decision is made
is Stan Williams, found guilty in a highly questionable trial, and in any
case provably committed, unlike Schwarzenegger, to the well-being of
others, the situation is all the more disheartening.
And I would take the so-called Christian right to task for its misuse of
the label 'Christian'. For the conception of justice that predominates
among them is a distinctly pagan conception, and one for which viable
alternatives have been available at least since the Gospels were written.
Schwarzenegger, perhaps to his credit, is honest about the primacy of
this-worldly glory among his concerns, and pays no more lip-service to the
religious wing of his party than necessary.
But the institution of capital punishment relies on the masquerading of
vast numbers of Hammurabic pagans as followers of Christ. To bring to
their attention the shame of this masquerade is the best hope we have, at
present, of putting this travesty behind us.
(source: CounterPunch - Justin Smith is a professor of philosophy and
writer living in Montreal)
If Schwarzenegger is sincere about the importance of education and
rehabilitation, he will grant Tookie Williams clemency.
Anyone who does not know already that Stanley "Tookie" Wiliams is
scheduled to die by lethal injection in San Quentin on Dec. 13, 2005, will
soon know. A founder of the notorious Crips gang in Los Angeles who has
been convicted of four murders, Williams has become a surprisingly
effective moral leader to youth in his hometown and around the world.
Among the 51,000 people who have signed a petition for Williams' clemency
are countless former gangmembers and Desmond Tutu. What happens to his
case will have unusually weighty implications for the U.S. and its
"Education is my passion," Arnold Schwarzenegger has often proclaimed.
"Corrections should correct," he has repeated, apparently endorsing the
belief that people can change.
Is this mere lip service? Is it a glib performance similar to what some
parole boards assume they are getting from a prisoner who promises he'll
make good? Or is it the speech of a man whose word is his bond?
Tookie Wlliams' plea to have his sentence commuted offers Arnold
Schwarzenegger a chance to answer these questions. Education has truly
been Williams' passion; his learning curve is about as steep as it gets.
When the prison chaplain gave him a dictionary, as Tookie tells it, he
fell in love with words. He'd write 50 words on one side of a paper towel,
put the definitions on the other side and then test himself.
Self-education gave birth to his conscience.
Some believe Williams should not be granted clemency because he has denied
responsibility for the killings that landed him on Death Row. (In fact, he
has continued to appeal his conviction.) But Williams does take
responsibility for the epidemic reach and murderous legacy of the Crips.
When he learned that the Crips had inspired copycat gangs in South Africa
and among Somali immigrants in Switzerland, he wrote an apology for
"ruining the lives of so many young people," which he delivered to the
Congressional Black Caucus. His Protocol for Peace between gangs has been
used widely to prevent strife among Crips and Bloods. His "Letter to
Incarcerated Youth" insists that they can resist the false lures of gangs
and can discipline and educate themselves. (These three documents are
posted on Williams' website.)
I do not know Tookie Williams personally, but I know some former Crips who
have been profoundly transformed by his words and his example. I have
known other prisoners on San Quentin's condemned row and nationwide who,
like Williams, have come to feel profound remorse for their violence and
strive to make some reparation to society. The means of payment they most
desire is helping others to avoid their mistakes.
Committing himself to trying to repair the harm he has done to young
people, Williams has kept his focus and broadened his reach. He has
co-authored a series of children's books, called "Tookie Speaks Out
Against Gang Violence." Teachers and prison librarians attest to the fact
that Tookie's credibility and influence among youth at risk are
unsurpassed. Williams' Internet Project, online chats teaching literacy
and peer leadership to young Somali immigrants in Switzerland inspried six
members of the Swiss Parliament to nominate Williams for the Nobel Peace
As a man who has remade himself more than once -- immigrant, body-builder,
actor, politician -- Gov. Schwarzenegger can learn from this teacher.
Schwarzenegger has commmendably argued that prisons should return to the
goal of rehabilitation. In California's bloated condemned row (648
prisoners) and its vast prison empire (165,000 incarcerated), he would be
hardput to find anyone better qualified to embody the meaning of
rehabilitation than Tookie Williams. If the governor is sincere about the
importance of education and rehabilitation, he will grant Williams
(source: AlterNet - Bell Gale Chevigny is a member of the PEN Prison
Writing Committee and editor of 'Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing'
Taft denies clemency for man who killed 2 family members
Gov. Bob Taft on Monday denied clemency to a man who strangled his
mother-in-law and suffocated his 5-year-old stepdaughter while high on
John Hicks is set to be executed by injection Tuesday morning at the
Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
Hicks, 49, received the death sentence for the 1985 murder of Brandy
Green. Hicks also was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing
56-year-old Maxine Armstrong and 10 to 25 years for aggravated robbery.
Both were killed in Armstrong's Cincinnati apartment.
Hicks' attorney, Marc Mezibov, said he was disappointed with Taft's
decision and wished that the governor had more carefully considered the
"As difficult as the facts are in connection with Mr. Hicks' actions,
there are nevertheless compelling and legitimate reasons why his life
should be spared," he said.
Taft could have commuted the sentence to life in prison. However, he cited
the rulings throughout Hicks' appeals that found he had been given a fair
trial and that there was overwhelming evidence of his guilt.
(source: Associated Press)
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