Day: May 31, 2012

PENNSYLVANIA – Pa. governor signs 3 more death warrants

May 31, 2012 Source :

HARRISBURG –  Gov. Tom Corbett has signed execution warrants for three men on death row.

  • Darien Houser was convicted of the 2004 killing of a Philadelphia warrant officer attempting to serve a warrant on Houser for failing to appear at his rape trial.
  • John Koehler Jr. is on death row for persuading a teenager to kill Koehler’s girlfriend and her 9-year-old son in Bradford County in 1995.
  • Willie Clayton was found guilty in 1986 of killing two Philadelphia men during separate robberies, two months apart.

Pennsylvania has executed only three people – all of whom chose to end their appeals – since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976. The last was in 1999.

TEXAS – Man on death row for Houston slaying loses appeal – Jamie McCoskey

May 30, 2012  Source :

HOUSTON — A federal appeals court has rejected an appeal from a Texas death row inmate condemned for the slaying of a Houston man abducted from his apartment and fatally stabbed more than 20 years ago.

Attorneys for 47-year-old Jamie McCoskey contended instructions to the jury at his 1993 trial were improper. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Tuesday rejected the claims, moving McCoskey closer to execution for the death of 20-year-old Michael Dwyer. Dwyer’s fiancé also was abducted and taken to an abandoned Houston home where Dwyer was killed and she was raped. She later identified McCoskey as the attacker.

McCoskey already had been convicted of kidnapping in Travis County, was a two-time parole violator and was released from prison six months before the November 1991 abductions and slaying.

DEATH ROW: Journalist and campaigner Eric Allison gives his inside track

May 31, 2012 Source :

by Eric Allison

During my time behind bars, I acquired something of a reputation as a jailhouse lawyer.

Not major league; I didn’t reverse any wrongful convictions, or take a case to the House of Lords, as some of my more illustrious fellow con lawyers managed; but I enjoyed some minor victories and liked being a thorn in the side of my keepers and fighting them on behalf of prisoners with a grievance occupied my time nicely.

My work – all pro bono – did not endear me to the authorities who held me; no penal system takes kindly to criticism from those it locks up.

But my experience and the payback from my keepers, pales into insignificance alongside the real jailhouse lawyers brought to life  in the pages of a remarkable book of that name.

Jailhouse Lawyers is the work of one of the most celebrated prisoners in the American prison system, Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been on death row in a Pennsylvania penitentiary since he was convicted of murdering a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981.

Jamal, 54, is perhaps the best known prisoner in the world; feted by lawyers and academics and supported by activists worldwide.

He has been given honorary citizenship of 25 cities, including Paris, Copenhagen and Montreal.

Although no mean lawyer himself, the book is not about the author.

He takes an admirably humble view of his own achievements, preferring to pay homage to the celebrated convict lawyers who have taken cases to the highest courts in the US. Practitioners who, in Jamal’s words, have learned their law, “not in the ivory towers of multi-billion-dollar-endowed universities”, but in the “hidden dark dungeons of America.”

The term dungeons is not misused; in the US, prisoners who offend their keepers are placed in the “hole” and the common thread linking those featured in the book is the amount of time they have all spent in the hole, some for decades.

And while some penal systems “dress up” the names used for isolation blocks (care and separation units, in this country for example), in the US, the hole is precisely that – a hole in the ground. Hardly the places to prepare to take groundbreaking cases to the United States Supreme Court, as many of those named have done.

In 1991, a group of academics studied the disciplinary actions, against prisoners, in jails across the US.

They found no segment of the american prison population outweighed jailhouse lawyers when it came to prisoners targeted by the administrators for punishment.

The prison lawyers headed the table, “scoring” twice as many spells in the hole as, for example, gang members or political prisoners.

Despite this persecution, many have become legends in their own legal time; often teaching other inmates to follow what has become a successful tradition.

The fact that jailhouse lawyers have become so firmly entrenched in US legal circles is a massive tribute to those practising their craft under the most restrictive and oppressive conditions.

Men such as Richard Mayberry, who has won more civil actions from behind bars than most conventional lawyers win in a lifetime.

In legal circles in the US, it is said to be a rare law report which does not begin or end with Mayberry mentioned in the citation or text.

Or David Ruiz, who, in 1971, naively complained about prison conditions to the assistant warden of the Texas penitentiary which held him. That action earned a long spell in the hole.

Learning fast, Ruiz rewrote his complaints and passed them out to a lawyer and began the battle which would change Texas penal history. A decade later, the United States Supreme Court forced the Texas penal authorities to spend billions to bring their system into “some semblance of modernity”.

The fight for justice from inside has never been easy. Even in supposedly enlightened times, attempts have been made to silence the jailhouse lawyers.

In 1996 the then President Bill Clinton put his name to the Prison Litigation Reform Act which, far from reforming, put financial and legal restraints on those who sued from behind bars.

The author’s death sentence is currently under review. In April this year, the United States Court of Appeals unanimously declared his death sentence to be unconstitutional.

His case was remanded for a new hearing.

The death penalty  may be imposed again or Abu-Jamal may receive a sentence of life without parole.

Irrespective of his fate, this compelling and inspiring work should be mandatory reading by those who make and practice law.

Reform rarely comes from the top, the poker player holding four aces never asks for a new deal.

Jailhouse lawyers worldwide have usually been dealt a bad hand in life; these chronicles show us that, even with the odds stacked against them, they do not always lose the game.

Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v the USA. By Mumia Abu-Jamal, Crossroads Books, PO Box 287 NW6 5QU £11.99 + 10% postage. Email: crossroadsbooks@

• Selma James presents her new book, Sex, Race and Class – The Perspective of Winning, at the Owl Bookshop  207-209 Kentish Town Road, NW5 2JU  at 6.30pm tonight (Thursday)

ARIZONA – Motion denied to watch executions by injection

May 31, 2012 Source :

Despite strong language from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a 2002 appeals-court ruling, a federal judge in Phoenix on Wednesday denied motions to allow attorneys and reporters to watch as executioners insert the catheters that carry the drugs used in lethal injections for condemned prisoners.

The Federal Public Defender’s Office in Phoenix and other defense attorneys have complained about the practices of the Arizona Department of Corrections in carrying out executions by lethal injection. Among the concerns are the qualifications of those who insert IV lines into the condemned prisoners and why they repeatedly fail to find suitable veins in the prisoner’s arms and must resort to a surgically installed catheter in the groin area.

On May 15, the day before death-row prisoner Samuel Lopez was to be executed for the 1986 murder of a Phoenix woman, his attorneys filed a motion with U.S. District Judge Neil Wake, asking to be allowed to witness the catheterization. Wake did not rule on the motion. But the subject had come up in oral arguments on May 14 in a last-ditch appeal to the 9th Circuit.

Of concern in that appeal was a March execution in which the condemned man was not allowed to speak to his attorney when prison staff was unable to find a suitable vein in his arm and instead inserted the catheter in his groin.

The appeals court refused to stop Lopez’s execution, but one of the judges questioned why the media had not insisted on being present when the lines were inserted. The state of Ohio and California allow such witnessing, and a 2002 9th Circuit opinion ruled that the public has a First Amendment right to witness all aspects of an execution.

Lopez subsequently received a reprieve from the Arizona Supreme Court until June 27 because of problems with the state clemency board.

A coalition of Arizona journalism groups took up the challenge and asked to become part of the lawsuit over the Corrections Department policies.

That same day, another group of journalists in Idaho filed its own lawsuit asking to witness the preparation process on First Amendment grounds.

But Wake denied the Arizona motions Wednesday, citing technicalities in the timing of the motion and saying that a First Amendment violation had not been properly claimed.

Dale Baich of the Federal Public Defender’s Office said his office had not yet decided how to proceed.

Dan Barr, an attorney who represents the Arizona journalists, said his options would be to wait for Baich to amend his motion or file a separate lawsuit to assert the journalists’ claims.

“The whole trick is bringing up the issue in the right form and the right time,” Barr said.


May 29, 2012 Source

On May 18, 2012, Victor Stephens was taken off death row after 25 years and resentenced to life in prison. The result came after the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama on October 6, 2011, found that the Hale County prosecutor who tried the case illegally discriminated against African Americans during jury selection.

Victor Stephens is African American. During his capital trial, the prosecution illegally used 21 of its 23 peremptory strikes to remove eligible African Americans from serving on his jury. The defense objected, arguing that the prosecutor’s strikes and the prosecutor’s notes made during trial revealed racially biased jury selection in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The law requires prosecutors to give reasons for strikes if the judge suspects there is racial discrimination during jury selection. In his notes, the prosecutor wrote “need reason to strike” next to two black jurors but no white jurors, for whom the prosecutor instead wrote actual reasons, such as “hard of hearing.”

The defense argued that the fact that the State “need[ed a] reason to strike” two black jurors, while it did not “need [a] reason to strike” any white jurors, is direct evidence that the State first decided to strike these black jurors and then searched for a pretextual and facially race-neutral reason to give the court.

These notations, together with other evidence in the record, comprise overwhelming evidence proving the State illegally discriminated against African Americans in jury selection, the defense contended.

The federal court agreed, pointing out that the State’s purported reasons for excluding African Americans were not supported by the record and, in some cases, were contradicted by the jurors’ responses during jury selection.

The court further found the fact that the State had a chance to ask jurors about any discrepancies but did not suggests the prosecutor’s explanation was a sham and a pretext for discrimination. “[Unless he had an ulterior reason for keeping [a potential juror] off the jury,” the federal court reasoned, “this court would expect that the prosecutor would have cleared up any misunderstanding by asking further questions.”

In contrast, the prosecutor did ask white potential jurors follow-up questions and did not strike white potential jurors who shared the same “reasons” as black jurors who were struck.

Concluding that the prosecutor illegally excluded black potential jurors based on their race, the federal court vacated Mr. Stephens’s conviction and sentence, granting him a new trial. The State settled the case without a new trial and, on May 18, Mr. Stephens was re-sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

A recent report by EJI found that racially biased use of peremptory strikes and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread, particularly in serious criminal cases and capital cases. Hundreds of people of color called for jury service have been illegally excluded from juries after prosecutors asserted pretextual reasons to justify their removal.