Day: March 29, 2012

Why is Alabama opposing DNA testing?

March 28, 2012  source :

why is Alabama opposing DNA testing?

Rebekah Skelton reports on a case where an Alabama man’s life is at stake.

March 28, 2012

Alabama death row prisoner Thomas ArthurAlabama death row prisoner Thomas Arthur

THOMAS ARTHUR has been on Alabama’s death row for 30 years. He was convicted of killing Troy Wicker in 1982, but has always maintained his innocence. Recently, a federal appeals court stayed Arthur’s March 29 execution date over an issue about lethal injection, though that stay could be lifted at any time.

The real question, however, remains this: Will Thomas Arthur be executed in Alabama without being allowed to have DNA testing that could prove his innocence?

There is a piece of evidence, an “Afro wig” worn by Wicker’s killer as a disguise, that could be tested for Arthur’s DNA. The wig has already been tested once for DNA, after another Alabama prisoner, Bobby Ray Gilbert, confessed to Wicker’s murder in 2008. However, the testing was inconclusive–there wasn’t a match for Gilbert or Arthur.

Ultimately, the original judge decided that Gilbert’s confession wasn’t credible, and despite a lack of other physical evidence tying Arthur to the crime, she recommended that the Alabama Supreme Court deny Arthur’s appeal, which it did.

Now, Arthur’s defense team is asking for a more advanced DNA test, called a mini-STR DNA analysis, on the wig, but Alabama’s attorney general is fighting the request–arguing that this test wouldn’t be any more accurate than the previous one. On top of that, there is no law guaranteeing Arthur the right to further DNA testing.

“I am outraged that there is physical evidence that, if DNA-tested, would prove my father’s guilt or innocence conclusively. This testing could be done prior to his execution and would be paid for by the law firm handling his case,” said Arthur’s daughter Sherrie Stone. “If we are to continue executions in this country, laws must be put in place in which DNA testing must be allowed at all stages of the process. There is a chance we are executing innocent people. I know because my father is one of those people.”

If the lawyers have offered to pay for the testing, what could possibly be the problem? If the test shows that Arthur’s innocent, the state of Alabama can rest easy knowing they didn’t condemn an innocent man to death. And if it show’s he’s guilty, it would only affirm what the state has already convicted him of, at no cost to them.

However, as Andrew Cohen pointed out in a February article in The Atlantic, the general consensus among prosecutors and judges is to value “finality” in cases, rather than “accuracy.” Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, outlined this position in a 2000 “Frontline” interview, saying, “We can’t give new trials to everyone who establishes, after conviction, that they might be innocent. We would have no finality in the criminal justice system, and finality is important.”

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IT SHOULD be clear to anyone with a conscience that if there’s even a small chance that someone might be innocent after being convicted, the court should do everything in its power to ensure they have the right person–especially when someone’s life is at stake.

But lately, prosecutors have been fighting harder than ever to keep defendants from having access to post-conviction DNA testing. Hank Skinner has been on Texas death row since 1995. His case has many similarities to Arthur’s, such as DNA evidence the court is denying him the right to have tested and a heavy emphasis on an eyewitness who at one point or another recanted.

“Since these guys are on their electoral deadlines, their finality has nothing to do with accuracy,” said Skinner’s wife Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner. “You can’t rush justice.”

The goal of any justice system has to be to find the truth. As Sandrine said, since no justice system is ever going to be infallible–there have been 289 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S., according to the Innocence Project–prosecutors and judges must be willing to admit that they might have convicted the wrong person.

Post-conviction DNA testing must be granted to prisoners whose guilt is questionable–o matter what the cost, and especially when it could be an innocent person who’s paying the ultimate price.

First published at The New Abolitionist.

Plea-bargain decision underscores right to justice

march 29, source :

For those fortunate few who’ve never been exposed to the criminal justice system, it might seem odd to learn that more than 90 percent of all criminal convictions in federal and state courts are the result of plea agreements with prosecutors.

Because of the crushing volume of cases, the courts would not work without the use of “plea bargains” that avoid the necessity of time-consuming trials.

Now come two rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that underscore what should be obvious: Defendants have a constitutional right to effective counsel by their attorneys when considering plea negotiations, the Journal’s Michael Hewlett reported. The rulings are expected to change the way pleas bargains are handled, which may mean more work for defense attorneys but perhaps a better system of justice overall.

The revelation of so many wrongful convictions in recent years makes the idea that defendants have a right to a clear understanding of any plea offer a no-brainer — and long overdue. Criminal defense lawyers should be expected to do a thorough job briefing their clients when prosecutors offer plea bargains.

“This could affect every defendant in the system,” Ron Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, told the Journal. It won’t bring the system to a halt, he said, but defense attorneys likely will have to file more paperwork and take more time to ensure their clients get the right legal advice regarding plea offers. That’s a worthy goal.

In one of the cases the high court ruled on, Anthony Cooper rejected a plea offer because his attorney told him that prosecutors could not prove the crime. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison instead of the seven years he could have received under the plea.

Cooper’s attorney “had no business practicing criminal law if he didn’t know better than that,” Pete Clary, Forsyth County’s public defender, told the Journal. Clary said defense attorneys have an ethical obligation to present all plea offers to their clients and advise them accordingly.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said plea offers are written down and placed in the public court file, and the defendant is informed of the plea offer in open court.

If that is accompanied by a defense attorney’s consultation with his client on the pros and cons of the offer, then the defendant has been treated fairly and equitably by our system of justice. That should be a given

Thomas Douglas Arthur new execution date has been set for today at 6pm (Stay)

march 29, 2012 source :

A new execution date has been set for death row inmate Thomas Douglas Arthur.

Officials with the Alabama Department of Corrections say Arthur will be put to death on Thursday, March 29th at 6 pm. That will happen at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

Arthur has served more than 24 years on Alabama’s death row. He was convicted in the contract killing of businessman Troy Wicker in 1982.

Thomas  Douglas had challenged his scheduled execution by lethal injection, claiming the state’s use of a new anesthesia did not completely sedate inmates before the lethal drugs were administered. He said the practice was cruel and unusual.

The court on Wednesday declined a request by Alabama’s attorney general’s office to reconsider a March 21 decision allowing Arthur to go forward with his challenge.

Spokeswoman Joy Patterson said the Alabama attorney general’s office was not going to appeal the court decision Wednesday.

State attorneys have pointed to successful executions where the drug — pentobarbital — was used.

The court last week decided to put Arthur’s execution on hold while the challenge was heard. It marked the fifth time that Arthur — who has maintained his innocence for more than 29 years while on death row — was spared execution.

According to court documents filed by the State of Alabama, Troy Wicker’s wife, Judy, testified that she had a sexual relationship with Arthur and paid him $10,000 to kill her husband.

11th court read the docket click here

Thomas Douglas Arthur  Website

case and old post  click here

Texas accuses anti-death penalty charity of fomenting violence

march 28, source :

Texas, America’s most prolific practitioner of the death penalty, has launched an extraordinary attack on the international anti-death penalty charity Reprieve, accusing it of intimidating and harassing drug companies and likening the group to violent prison gangs responsible for the eruption of prison riots.

The attack comes from the Texas department of criminal justice, TDCJ, which each year carries out the lion’s share of executions in America. In a letter to the attorney general of Texas, Greg Abbott, the TDCJ accuses Reprieve of “intimidation and commercial harassment” of manufacturers of medical drugs used in lethal injections.

In astonishingly vivid language, the TDCJ says that Reprieve, which is headquartered in London, “crosses the line from social activists dedicated to their cause to authoritarian ideologues who menace and harass private citizens who decline to submit to Reprieve’s opinion on the morality of capital punishment by lethal injection”.

Reprieve’s tactics present the risk, the Texas prison service claims, of violence. “It is not a question of if but when Reprieve’s unrestrained harassment will escalate into violence against a supplier.”

In the most colourful accusation, the TDCJ compares the human rights organisation to gangs operating in Texas prisons. It writes that Reprieve’s methods “present classic, hallmark practices comparable to practices by gangs incarcerated in the TDCJ who intimidate and coerce rival gang members and which have erupted into prison riots”.

The Texas letter takes the war of words between US states still practising executions and anti-death penalty campaigners to a new level. Reprieve has long had fraught relations with states practising capital punishment in the US, but never before has it been accused of fomenting violence.

Maya Foa, Reprieve’s specialist campaigner on lethal injection, said the accusation was absurd. “Pharmaceutical manufacturers have been objecting to the use of medicines in executions since the lethal injection was invented – Reprieve didn’t create these ethical scruples! And far from harassing them, Reprieve defends these companies and their ideals and we have excellent relationships with them.

“Medicines are made to improve and save lives, not to end them in executions. This principle is at the core of the pharmaceutical profession, and companies have long objected to the misuse of their products by US departments of corrections.”

Texas makes its assault on Reprieve in a 15-page brief that it composed in response to a request for information from the Guardian relating to the quanitity of anaesthetic that the prison service had left in its supplies. The pool of anaesthetic – the first drug used in a cocktail of three chemicals that makes up the lethal injection – has been running low as a result of s boycotts in Europe and other countries.

In its brief, the TDCJ makes a case for withholding the information requested by the Guardian on security grounds. It says that to release information on drug stocks would help Reprieve identify the source of the medicines and that in turn would create “a substantial risk of physical harm to the supplier”.

As supporting evidence, the TDCJ cites the example of Lundbeck, a Danish drug company that is one of the world’s leading producers of the anaesthetic pentobarbital, trademarked as Nembutal. Last summer the firm placed strict restrictions on the distribution of Nembutal to prevent it being used in executions in the US.

Texas claims that Lundbeck imposed the restriction in response to intimidation by Reprieve. “Lundbeck acquiesced to Reprieve’s unrestrained harassment and agreed to deny orders from prisons located in those states active in carrying out death penalty sentences,” the brief says.

But Lundbeck has told the Guardian that its move to impose restrictions on the end use of Nembutal had nothing to do with Reprieve. “We acted because we are a company that wants to help save people’s lives and we are against the misuse of our drugs in prisons. We took our stance long before we were contacted by Reprieve.”

In a gesture that makes a mockery of the claim of intimidation, Lundbeck this week has signed a Hippocratic oath that pledges its commitment to advance the health of the public and avoid inflicting any harm. The oath was drawn up by Reprieve as part of its campaign to block the use of medical drugs in executions.

Texas is the powerhouse of the death penalty in America. Since executions began in the modern era in 1976, the state has put to death 480 people – four times more than the next most plorific practitioner, Virginia, with 109.
Last year, it executed 13 prisoners, again far more than any other state.

The enthusiasm of  Texas for judicial killings became an issue in the presidential race last September when its governor, Rick Perry, told a cheering TV audience at a Republican nomination debate that he never lost sleep over the thought that some of the 240 people who have been executed on his watch may have been innocent.

Death Row Inmates Win Order Banning Unapproved Anesthesia

source :

March 27 (Bloomberg) — Twenty-one death row inmates won an order barring use of sodium thiopental, an imported drug given as anesthesia prior to administration of lethal injections.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington today ruled that the federal Food and Drug Administration violated its own rules by allowing entry of the drug into the country without first ensuring its efficacy.

“Prisoners on death row have an unnecessary risk that they will not be anesthetized properly prior to execution,” Leon wrote in a 22-page ruling, adding that the agency had created a “slippery slope” for entry of other unapproved drugs.

In an accompanying two-page order, the judge banned the import of thiopental, calling it a misbranded and unapproved drug, and directed Arizona, California, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee and any others with stocks of the barbiturate to send them to the FDA.

Attorneys for the inmates had argued that use of the drug during execution could lead to so-called anesthesia awareness, in which they may experience suffocation, pain and cardiac arrest.

The shipments of thiopental entering the U.S. originated from an Austrian facility owned by Sandoz International GmbH, a German company, according to the complaint. The drug was shipped to the U.S. from a London wholesaler, Dream Pharma Ltd., the inmates said.

Dream Pharma bought the drug from a unit of Archimedes Pharma Ltd., a closely held company based in Reading, U.K., according to the complaint.

Imported Drug

The FDA countered that release of the imported drug within the U.S. was an act of enforcement discretion, and that “reviewing substances imported or used for the purpose of state-authorized lethal injection clearly falls outside of FDA’s public health role,” according to Leon’s ruling.

The judge heard arguments from both sides on Feb. 9.

Leon said there was no dispute that the FDA hadn’t reviewed foreign or domestic thiopental for safety and effectiveness. Because it was unapproved, the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act required the agency to bar its import, he said.

Shelly Burgess, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said she couldn’t immediately comment on the judge’s decision.

The case is Beaty v. Food and Drug Administration, 11-cv- 289, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Washington).

read  momerandum opinion  : click here

read order by Judge Richard J. Leon : click here