Day: June 24, 2015

Letters from Death Row: The Biology of Trauma


New studies show that trauma biologically alters the brains of young boys in ways that affect their adult behavior.

Juan Ramirez grew up in poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, in a neighborhood infested with drug-and gang-related violence. By the age of 10 he’d started smoking marijuana and using inhalants. Within a couple of years he’d moved on to cocaine. By his middle teens he was drinking alcohol and smoking weed daily. A game he and his friends used to play in the Valley, called WAWA, involved spraying paint into a bag, sealing the lip around their mouths, and inhaling the fumes to get high.

Ramirez is the middle of five children and, according to court documents, his mother and father were alcoholics who disciplined their kids by whipping them with belts, clothes hangers, shoes—even tree branches. The severity of those beatings depended on the parents’ moods. Consequently, Ramirez spent most of his time playing outside in the street.

Inevitably, perhaps, he dropped out of school, became a drug addict and spent time in Texas Youth Commission facilities for juvenile offenders. But it was a single incident in 2003 that sealed his fate. One night in early January, 11 masked men burst into a small house in Hidalgo County to steal marijuana. By the time they left, six members of a rival drug gang in the house were dead. Ramirez was just 20 years old and the youngest of those the police said were responsible. Although he wasn’t identified as the gunman, under Texas’ law of parties, prosecutors successfully sought the death penalty.

For the uninitiated, the law of parties holds that if a person “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense,” then he or she is criminally responsible for the conduct of the other person. Of course the law can be applied inconsistently—and it often is.

death row inmate

Courtesy of Justin Clemons
Death row inmate.

This is Ramirez’s 11th year on death row, housed at the notorious Polunsky Unit in the rural East Texas town of Livingston. And his is one of numerous stories of childhood abuse and violence that condemned inmates have told the Observer as part of an informal yet wide-ranging survey of the men waiting for Texas to exercise the most brutal manifestation of its power.

Last year, I sent a questionnaire to each of the 292 inmates on Texas’ death row. It was designed to elicit information often missed in narratives about the death penalty: the effect that solitary confinement has on them; whether they had found religion in prison; and what sort of childhoods they had. I wanted to see if any patterns emerged.

Forty-one inmates responded. Ramirez was among 22 inmates (54 percent) who reported having violent or abusive childhoods. An additional nine inmates (22 percent) described their childhoods as “hard,” or said they had some sort of dominant negative issue—whether it was growing up in poverty and/or in a crime-filled neighborhood or that they endured the potentially debilitating experience of having a parent walk out on them. This is the final story in a series based on information obtained from those responses. Three others, which explore what books the inmates read, the effects of solitary confinement, and how religion factors into their lives, ran previously on the Observer website.

This is not an attempt to retry those cases or to mitigate the harm these men caused. But too often, defense attorneys lack the resources to launch in-depth investigations into the backgrounds of those facing capital convictions. And to quote the Death Penalty Information Center, “Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In many cases, the appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases.” The center cites a Dallas Morning News examination of 461 capital cases that found nearly one in four inmates was represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who had been disciplined for professional misconduct. Additionally, an investigation by the Texas Defender Service found death row inmates “faced a one-in-three chance of being executed without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney.”

It’s also important to acknowledge that the stories of inmates’ childhoods that have emerged from the Observer’s survey are told in the inmates’ own words. When possible, they have been corroborated with court documents or contextualized by news reports.

The responses in our correspondence offer new evidence that supports findings from studies that show a correlation between childhood trauma and the potential for future violent offending. As Texas leads the nation’s death penalty states in executions, the letters also act as important reminders that it’s time we ask what this says about the fractured minds of those we execute and rethink the extent of our moral culpability.

At his trial, prosecutors said Ramirez was a member of a Rio Grande Valley gang known as the Tri-City Bombers. But of the 11 alleged perpetrators of what became known as the Edinburg Massacre, only two received a death sentence. Another, Robert Garza, was executed in 2013 for an unrelated offense. That same year, the alleged ringleader of the gang, Jeffrey Juarez, known as “Dragon,” got 20 years for drug conspiracy and trafficking but escaped prosecution for the killings in Edinburg due to lack of witnesses. Likewise, Reymundo Sauceda, who prosecutors said approved the homicides, had the capital murder indictment against him dismissed. The others in the gang either received prison terms or remain fugitives from the law.

In a letter to the Observer, Ramirez wrote, “I come from the poorest region of the nation, from a poor household. I pretty much had all the strikes against me before I had a choice of my own.”

 

In their paper “The Cycle of Violence,” published by the American Psychological Association, David Lisak and Sara Beszterczey, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston, looked at the life histories of 43 men on death row. They discovered that all of them reported having been neglected as children, that an astonishing 94 percent had been physically abused, 59 percent sexually abused, and 83 percent had witnessed violence in adolescence.

Another study, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality,” published in 2013 in The (Kaiser) Permanente Journal, surveyed 151 offenders and compared their answers with a “normative sample” of the population. The researchers found that the offender group reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood as the control group.

Many, if not most, condemned men were abandoned by their fathers, lived in foster care, or were abused or neglected, according to Mark Cunningham and Mark Vigen, who 13 years ago conducted a critical review of the literature on death row inmates for the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law. This observation, they wrote, is supported by the findings of seven of the clinical studies they looked at. “The presence of pathological family interactions in the histories of capital murderers is consistent with an extensive body of research demonstrating the role of disrupted attachment and disturbed family relationships in the etiology of violence,” they wrote. In the United Kingdom (which doesn’t have the death penalty), Gwyneth Boswell, a professor at the University of East Anglia, has spent 22 years conducting research into why young people become violent, and she has identified that trauma experiences in childhood are key features. Two of her studies suggest a high prevalence of abuse and traumatic loss in young offenders’ lives. In one study, Boswell examined the files of 200 young offenders and discovered 72 percent had experienced some kind of abuse—be it emotional, sexual, ritual, or a combination. And 57 percent had experienced the death or loss of contact of a parent. The total number of young offenders who had experienced abuse and/or loss was 91 percent. “Unresolved trauma,” Boswell wrote, “is likely to manifest itself in some way at a later date. Many children become depressed, disturbed, violent or all three, girls tending to internalize and boys to externalize their responses.”

Reading through the stories contained in the questionnaires that the inmates returned, you are confronted with a litany of childhood horror. There’s Eugene Broxton, sent to an orphanage before being cared for by an older sister whose partner then beat him. Broxton was sentenced to death in 1992 after breaking into a hotel room, tying up, robbing and shooting a couple that was staying there. The woman died; her husband survived. In response to Broxton’s defense counsel’s argument in mitigation concerning his home life, the state said, “his sister, his half-sister, his half-brother got the same kind of discipline. And they didn’t turn out to be mass murderers.” Willie Trottie—who was executed in September—wrote that he had an abusive and violent mother who beat him and his siblings with extension cords until they bled. “I was abandoned at a hotel in Houston, placed in foster homes, was beaten there, and I ran away from all of them only to be returned to [the homes] to be abused again,” he wrote. “I was about seven or eight years old.”

Trottie was convicted of the 1993 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Canada, and her brother Titus. Prosecutors said he had threatened to kill Barbara if she didn’t come back to him. Trottie admitted shooting the pair but said it was in self-defense after Titus Canada shot him first. (Trottie was arrested after driving himself to the hospital with gunshot wounds.)

In an appeal to the Supreme Court, Trottie’s lawyers argued that attorneys representing him at his original trial failed to produce sufficient testimony about Trottie’s abusive childhood. Maurie Levin, an attorney with vast experience defending capital cases, and who represented Trottie in his litigation concerning the lethal injection protocol, told me that all of her clients survived miserable childhoods rampant with sexual, physical and emotional abuse. “They were impoverished, often entirely outside the social safety net. … How much does it affect later behavior? Every current study says it does—developmentally, neurologically, you name it—and our clients’ stories bear that out.”

Jeff Wood, who was convicted under the law of parties for being an accomplice to the murder of a convenience store clerk in Kerrville in the mid-1990s, wrote that his father used to hit him with a razor strap so badly that Child Protective Services was called. During the punishment phase of his trial, Wood instructed his attorneys not to call any witnesses, and so evidence of his abusive childhood was never presented.

Clinton Young, who faces execution for his part in a double murder in the course of a carjacking, wrote that he grew up with an abusive father and an emotionally abusive stepfather. “My dad beat me with a 2×4 and [kicked me with] steel toe-capped boots. My step dad focused on making sure I feared him and that I knew my real father didn’t care about me—and that I wouldn’t amount to, in his words, ‘a hill of rabbit shit in life.’”

Aníbal Canales strangled his cellmate in 1997 and was sentenced to death three years later. “I think it would take way too much paper to try and talk about my childhood,” he wrote in response to the Observer’s questionnaire. “I grew up in a house that was both violent and abusive. My father was a deeply violent man [who] abused me and my family regularly. My mother was an alcoholic and abusive also. I lived in a jungle, and I learned to hide myself in the foliage that was my life—and hide deep. It wasn’t until late in life that I was able to talk about that part of my life.”

In his findings at Canales’ Fifth Circuit appeal, the judge conceded that “by [his] trial counsel’s own admission [he] did not hire a mitigation specialist, interview family members or others who knew him growing up, or ‘collect any records or any historical data on his life.’” During Canales’ sentencing, the only mitigation presented by his attorney was that he was “a gifted artist” and “a peacemaker in prison.”

The 5th Circuit added that if Canales’ trial attorneys had conducted a mitigation investigation, “they would have discovered an extensive history of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Canales’s mother was an alcoholic who neglected her children, and his father was violent, angry, and irrational. After Canales’s parents separated, his mother married a man who was physically abusive, beating Canales with a belt and fist and forcing him to strip naked prior to these beatings. Canales’s step-father sexually abused his sister, and Canales attempted, in vain, to protect her. The family lived in poor housing, infested with flea[s] and lice and located in ‘gang central.’ Canales’s grandparents were also physically and verbally abusive. Eventually, Canales’s mother left him with his father. The beatings then resumed, and Canales’s father would beat him ‘until his father got tired.’ This led Canales to abuse drugs and alcohol, ‘hook up with the wrong people,’ and begin committing crimes. He lived in half-way houses for part of his teenage years. Canales’s sister stated that the death of Canales’s mother affected Canales severely and that he ‘went off the deep end’ after she passed away.”

Thomas Whitaker wrote that his childhood was emotionally derelict, with no friends or peers and no connection to his family. In December 2003, a couple of weeks before Christmas, Whitaker and his family returned to their Houston home after dinner. Inside the house, a masked gunman shot and killed Whitaker’s brother, Kevin, and his mother, Tricia, before wounding his father, Kent, and Whitaker himself. Although it looked like a robbery, police eventually arrested Whitaker. He later confessed to hiring the gunman to kill his family because of what prosecutors termed an “irrational hate.”

And there’s Jedidiah Murphy, whose parents abandoned him at 5, forcing him to live out his childhood in a series of foster homes. “I could not tell you all of it were you to have all day,” he wrote. “It was violent and it did not help me in life at all. I don’t blame all my life’s ills on my childhood but I never had a shot with the way that I grew up. I learned the wrong way right off the bat, and hell it took forever to see what I was doing was wrong. By that time I was lost to alcoholism like my father and his father and so on.”

As if an abusive childhood weren’t bad enough, Hector Medina, another death row inmate who responded to the questionnaire, spent his in a country torn apart by a bitter civil war.

USA: Many Basic Facts About Executions Remain Secret – Until Something Goes Wrong


June 24, 2015

As Oklahoma’s death-row inmates await word on whether the state’s execution procedure is constitutional, states – including Oklahoma – maintain strong laws protecting disclosure of information about the way they implement the death penalty.
Last year, an Oklahoma inmate sat on a gurney for 43 minutes while the drugs that were supposed to course swiftly through his body and kill him failed to do so.
Any day now, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in a case on whether Oklahoma’s death penalty protocol is constitutional, a case filed in the aftermath of that botched execution, many of the details of which still remain shrouded in secrecy. How the Supreme Court will decide – how narrowly or broadly or whether they will issue an opinion at all – is unknown.
One thing is clear, however, in Oklahoma and elsewhere: The way people are executed in America is increasingly done in secret.
The identities of the actual executioners have been secret for a long time. But in recent years, states have extended that same secrecy to the very drugs used to kill people – where they’re purchased, how they’re purchased, and how they’re prepared and administered.
Death penalty lawyers argue the secrecy means they don’t find out about many of the problems until something goes wrong. But even in those cases, investigations are done by the state itself, shielding an unknown amount of that information – beyond what the state releases – from public disclosure.
Lockett’s execution took place more than a year ago, yet reporters in Oklahoma are still waiting for Gov. Mary Fallin’s office to turn over emails and records from that night. Eventually Ziva Branstetter, a journalist now with the Tulsa Frontier, had little choice but to sue for the documents in December of last year.
Fallin has attempted to delay the suit – arguing that, although her office hasn’t turned over the records, she hasn’t formally denied the request either. Fallin’s office claimed in court that absent a formal denial, the courts couldn’t weigh in.
The response from Fallin isn’t an anomaly, either. Her office has stopped responding to emails about a BuzzFeed News open records request from months ago.
In a statement, a Fallin spokesperson said the governor was committed to transparency.
“It is an extremely time-consuming process,” Alex Weintz said. “And, since our office gets many Open Records requests, it can take a while to receive documents in response to a request.”
The situation in Oklahoma isn’t unusual.
“Departments of Corrections have realized that the more information they provide, the more it reveals how little they know,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor who has followed the death penalty for decades.
“It’s always been there, but now it’s becoming more pronounced. The only time we really find out what’s going on is when something goes wrong and we have a really badly botched execution.”
The secrecy has also provided cover when things go wrong. That’s how it has played out in Georgia after state officials had to halt an impending execution after finding particles floating in the syringe.
Georgia officials said the state would put its executions on hold while it investigated what went wrong. Attorney Gerald “Bo” King, who represents the woman on death row, worried that the “self-investigation” would be biased.
“[The state] will not be merely the subject of this investigation; they will also conduct it,” King wrote in March. “And they will hide all critical aspects of their self-assessment from Ms. Gissendaner, the public, and this court.”
Those concerns have been borne out in the time since. After a short investigation, Georgia told the courts, the press, and the public that the likeliest cause of the drug’s issues is that it was stored at too low of a temperature. But state officials did not publicize the fact that the expert consulted by the state also pointed to a 2nd possible cause – problems with how the drug was made. The state then withheld the results of a test that could support or cast doubt on that assessment, refusing to turn those results over to BuzzFeed News in an open records request.
“After reflection,” – and a BuzzFeed News report detailing how the state was withholding the results – the state changed its mind and released them. The results cast doubt on their assessment that it was temperature, and not a problem with the secret pharmacist that mixed the drug, that caused the drug to go bad.
The lethal injection problems have not appeared to change the minds of those who have supported the secrecy.
“Georgia did the right thing, they didn’t use the drug. It’s not a problem,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an organization that works to support the death penalty. “Oklahoma – they did have one case where the insertion wasn’t done correctly. But they’ve taken steps to fix it.”
Scheidegger and other supporters argue that the secrecy is vital. Without it, he says, people wouldn’t be willing to participate in executions or sell lethal drugs.
“I cannot think of another instance where companies would face the same criticism for participating in a government function,” Scheidegger said.
Military companies aren’t shielded from public scrutiny, and the amounts the government pays those companies are a matter of public record. When asked why this should be different, Scheidegger said, “I lived through Vietnam era and I don’t remember them doing this with military contractors.”
“As long as the drug is tested, it shouldn’t matter where it comes from,” he added.
It’s the argument that almost all other states have made when the secrecy has been challenged.
In fact, these days, Nebraska seems to be the only state fine with turning over records that illustrate how its lethal drugs are procured, even if the Food and Drug Administration has said those drugs are illegal and will be seized.
Nebraska’s lethal injection drugs are purchased from a supplier in India.

 

Boston bomber to be formally sentenced to death


June 24, 2015
A US federal judge will formally sentence Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death at a court hearing today when the 21-year-old former student will be offered the chance to speak.
Tsarnaev kept silent throughout his trial, which ended with the jury sentencing him to death on 15 May.
Victims and their relatives are expected to address the court.
Judge George O’Toole will then officially hand down the sentence, reached unanimously by the 12-person jury.
Tsarnaev expressed little emotion throughout his 12-week trial despite harrowing testimony and grisly video footage.
Neither has he expressed any public remorse, although a prominent Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who visited him in jail, said that he did to her.
“No one deserves to suffer like they did,” she quoted him as saying.
The 15 April 2013 double bombings at the Boston Marathon were one of the worst assaults on American soil since the 11 September 2001 attacks.
Carried out by Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan, the bombs killed 3 people and wounded 264 others, including 17 who lost limbs, near the finish line at the northeastern city’s popular marathon.
It took the jury more than 14 hours to choose death rather than life imprisonment for Tsarnaev on 6 counts.
It was a stinging defeat to the defence, who argued for a “lost kid” who would never have committed such horrors without being manipulated by his older brother.
The brothers went on the run and killed a police officer, before Tamerlan was shot dead and Tsarnaev arrested, 4 days later.
He was found, injured, in a grounded boat on which he had scrawled a bloody message defending the attacks as a means to avenge US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Only 3 out of 12 jurors said he acted under Tamerlan’s influence or that Tamerlan directed the bombings, while only 1 juror determined he was unlikely to commit or incite acts of violence while serving a life sentence.
The jury also rejected arguments from his defence team that he was the product of a chaotic family life, with a mentally ill father and his parents returning to Russia in 2012.
He is of Chechen descent, came to the United States as a child and took citizenship in 2012.
During the trial, government prosecutors argued Tsarnaev was a remorseless terrorist who deserved to die and declared that life imprisonment would be the “minimum” punishment.
The death sentence was possible only under federal law.
The state of Massachusetts outlawed capital punishment in 1947 and opinion polls had suggested residents favoured a life sentence for Tsarnaev.
Tsarnaev will then be flown to either America’s only “super-max” prison, ADX Florence, in Colorado or to the penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana where male inmates sit on federal death row.
Source: RTE, June 24, 2015

Executions on hold for at least a year as Louisiana sorts out death penalty method


June 24, 2015

Executions in Louisiana are on hold for at least a year because the state doesn’t have the drugs needed to put inmates to death, according to a court filing and a lawyer for a convicted child-killer.
Lawyers for Christopher Sepulvado and the state Department of Corrections were supposed to be in federal court Thursday to schedule a trial on the constitutionality of Louisiana’s method of execution.
Instead, a federal judge on Tuesday delayed the trial and Sepulvado’s execution – as well as 4 others on death row – until July 2016 as Louisiana tries to figure out how it can carry out the death penalty.
This is the 2nd time in a year that the state has asked to delay the trial.
States around the country have struggled to execute prisoners because of shortages of lethal injection drugs. In a few cases, it’s taken an unusually long time for inmates to die from new drug combinations.
In the motion to delay the hearing, Department of Corrections attorney James Hilburn wrote that “it would be a waste of resources and time to litigate this matter at present” because the facts in the case are changing. He wrote that he expects those issues to be “more settled” by July 2016.
Hilburn declined to elaborate on the reasons for the delay.
Louisiana’s current death-penalty protocol calls for a mix of hydromorphone and midazolam, the same drugs used last summer during an Arizona execution that took nearly 2 hours to complete. Louisiana’s last known supplies of the drugs expired earlier this year.
Mercedes Montagnes, a lawyer for Sepulvado, said the state “came to us after they were unable to locate any legal source for lethal injection drugs and asked for another year to come up with a new method of execution or source of drugs.”
Sepulvado, who was convicted of beating his stepson with a screwdriver and then submerging his body in scalding water, has delayed his execution several times in the past 2 years.
In his lawsuit, he argues that the state’s execution method violates his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
As part of that lawsuit, Sepulvado has sought to learn the exact procedure Louisiana will use to put him to death. The state has fought such disclosures in court and in response to public-records requests filed by The Lens.
Meanwhile, Louisiana corrections officials have gotten more creative in getting their hands on execution drugs and have considered new ways to carry out the death penalty.
In January 2014, as Sepulvado’s last execution date approached, the Louisiana Department of Corrections turned to Lake Charles Memorial Hospital for one of the 2 drugs it needed to execute him.
According to a hospital spokesman, the state lied to the Lake Charles pharmacist, saying the hydromorphone was for “a medical patient” rather than a prisoner on death row.
“At no time was Memorial told the drug would be used for an execution,” spokesman Matt Felder said at the time.
The state considered getting another drug from an out-of-state compounding pharmacy not licensed in Louisiana, which would have been illegal.
In 2014, the Legislature considered reinstating electrocution. It’s been outlawed since 1991.
At the request of Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, the bill was changed to drop electrocution and instead conceal details about executions, including the source of execution drugs. It was never passed.
Other states, including Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma, have passed such secrecy laws.
In February, Louisiana corrections officials asked legislators to allow them to use nitrogen, which has never been tried in the U.S. No bill was introduced.
Death-penalty opponents have responded to drawn-out executions around the country by calling execution methods “experimental.”
Last year, a prisoner in Oklahoma tried to rise from the gurney after his injections began. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of that state’s execution method.
That execution used midazolam, 1 of the 2 drugs called for by Louisiana. It prompted Louisiana officials to say they would reconsider the drug.
The state has not said what method it would use instead.
“Obviously whatever plan the state comes up with will have to be evaluated by the court for its constitutionality,” Montagnes said.
Other death-row inmates who won stays of execution with Tuesday’s ruling are:
–Jesse Hoffman, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998 for kidnapping, raping and fatally shooting Covington resident Mary “Molly” Elliot in 1996
–Bobby Hampton, who was convicted of robbing a liquor store in Shreveport and causing the death of employee Philip Russel Coleman in 1995
–Nathaniel Code, a Shreveport man convicted of four killings between 1984 and 1987
–Kevan Brumfield, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for the 1993 murder of Baton Rouge police officer Betty Smothers
Of the 5, only Sepulvado has been given an execution date.
Lawyers are set to meet July 11, 2016, to set a new trial date in his lawsuit.
Source: The Lens, June 24, 2015

 

TEXAS – The Moral Indefensibility of Death Row


June 22, 2015

Texas executes more of its citizens than any state in the country, and there’s new evidence that what we call justice is actually a corrupt, inhumane and morally indefensible system.

Alex Hannaford’s cover story this month shows an alarming correlation between trauma that happens to adolescent boys, the biological damage it does to their brains, how that altered physiology leads to violent behavior in their adult lives and their ultimate journeys to death row.

It’s been clear for a long time that poverty, violence, poor education and crime are interconnected. (We executed a 45-year-old man last year whose education ended in fourth grade and a 53-year-old man this year whose education ended in sixth grade.) And 97 percent of the people on death row are men.

We traditionally have used that sociological framework to examine homicidal behavior. Then, we find a personal comfort level with it and our individual moral codes.

But new studies and the data Hannaford collected from Texas death row inmates show the situation is more complex. There also are biological factors at work, and that discovery raises new questions about the morality of the Texas system.

As recently as the 1980s, professionals believed that the human brain was genetically determined by the time of birth. Now, studies by American and British scholars show that trauma actually changes the physiology of the brain and that those altered brains work differently in males and females. (Females tend to process the stress and trauma internally, directing destructive action at themselves; men tend to process it externally, focusing violence on other people.)

Male children who are physically, emotionally and/or sexually traumatized experience physical changes to their brains that make violence a common response to similar experiences later in life.

When that violence leads to a capital crime, the state places the man on death row, where the average inmate spends a full decade in an environment of emotional isolation, physical depravation, authoritarian relationships, and little or no interaction with any type of family or support network.

It’s a classic list designed for an assault on someone’s mental well-being. In fact, the state essentially drives many of those waiting to be executed insane. Then, we stick a needle in the arm of that adult traumatized child and kill him.

It is a shameful, barbaric process that many of us choose to look past, but every person who loves Texas should look directly at it. Texas is better than this.

NEW EXONERATION: Angel Echavarria


In 1994, a robber tied up two men and shot and killed one of them. The surviving victim identified a suspect during a photo identification procedure. Several days later the surviving victim saw Echavarria in a barber shop, and became convinced that Echavarria was the perpetrator, not the person he initially identified. No other evidence linked Echavarria to the crime. Echavarria was convicted of murder, robbery and assault on teh basis of the eyewitness ID. After almost 20 years in prison, new DNA tests were done which didn’t implicate Echavarria and evidence was uncovered that the sole eyewitness was a heavy drug user at the time of the identification. Echavarria was exonerated a week and a half ago. Read the rest of his story here: http://bit.ly/1dgmozu

Photo de The National Registry of Exonerations.source : The National Registry of Exonerations

Man on Florida death row for 2006 murder to be set free – Derral Hodgkins


A man on death row for the murder of a Pasco County waitress will soon walk free.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Derral Hodgkins for the 2006 murder of 46-year-old Teresa Lodge.
Lodge was found dead in her Land O’Lakes apartment.
She had been beaten, choked and stabbed multiple times.
Hodgkins’ skin was found under her fingernails, but investigators didn’t find a weapon or other evidence that placed Hodgkins at the scene.
The court said the skin found raises suspicion, but it wasn’t enough to convict Hodgkins.
The two dated years earlier and Hodgkins said they remained close. He told investigators they had sex about three days before the murder and Lodge dug her nails into his back during the act.
Source: Associated Press, June 19, 2015

 

California: Six inmates on San Quentin death row sue over time in solitary


A group of death row inmates has sued the state for keeping them in solitary confinement for years or even decades, locked in windowless cells with no phone calls or human contact. It’s treatment, they said, that “amounts to torture.”
The suit was filed in federal court Wednesday by 6 condemned prisoners, who said they were among about 100 inmates, out of 750 on death row, who are kept in isolation in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison as suspected gang members or associates. The suit said they are held in their cells 21 to 24 hours a day, with no natural light, no access to education or work programs, no phone calls and no contact visits from family members, who must speak to them by phone across a glass barrier.
One of the men has been in solitary confinement for 26 years, and 2 others for more than a decade, the suit said. Condemned prisoners in California spend an average of nearly 25 years on death row while their cases are appealed. A federal judge cited the duration of their confinement, though not the conditions, in a ruling last year that declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional. The state has appealed the ruling.
The suit is similar to a case scheduled for trial in December in federal court in Oakland over the solitary confinement of thousands of inmates in various prisons’ Security Housing Units, the maximum-security lockups that house prisoners suspected of gang affiliations. The San Quentin suit was filed separately because the adjustment center isn’t classified as a Security Housing Unit, although the conditions are similar, said Daniel Siegel, lawyer for the death row inmates.
Inmates in both cases claim their isolation violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and denies them due process of law. Until recently, they said, the only way out of the isolation unit was to become an informant. Prison officials say they now conduct case-by-case reviews of each inmate’s gang status or affiliations, and have released some inmates into the general prison population. But inmates say they are still kept in solitary confinement because of books they’ve read or cartoons found in their cells.
Siegel said release from isolation is even harder to win on death row. He said some inmates have been kept in the Adjustment Center solely because their capital crimes were gang-related.
Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said officials haven’t seen the suit and can’t comment on it. But she said no inmates are held in the cells for 24 hours a day, because they’re entitled to 10 hours a week in the prison exercise yard.
Source: Associated Press, June 19, 2015

Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement

Courts ‘may be required’ to decide if prisons need to find alternatives to solitary, Kennedy says

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.

His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote. He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.'”

Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.

“In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy’s comments came as a welcome surprise.

“It’s a remarkable statement. The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.

States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said. “They are automatically placed there. It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.

This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.

Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. 4 years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions.

Both sides of Kennedy’s views were evident in Thursday’s decision. He joined a 5-4 majority to reject a San Diego murderer’s bid for a new trial, but wrote separately to raise the issue of possible constitutional limits to solitary confinement.

The case before the court involved Hector Ayala, who had been convicted and sentenced to die for shooting to death 3 men in the attempted robbery of an auto body shop in 1985. A 4th man had been shot, but survived and identified Ayala as the shooter.

Ayala has been on California’s death row ever since his conviction a generation ago. The California courts upheld his conviction and death sentence, but 2 years ago a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned both. In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court cited the trial judge’s decision permitting prosecutors to remove all seven of the blacks and Latinos who were considered for the jury.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision and restored Ayala’s conviction and death sentence. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the “conscientious trial judge” had spoken to each of the potential jurors and decided the prosecutor was justified in removing them. “His judgment was entitled to great weight,” he concluded.

In his separate opinion, Kennedy said he agreed Alito’s opinion was “complete and correct,” but said he was nonetheless troubled to learn Ayala had been kept in solitary confinement. This means he has “been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day,” he wrote. An estimated 25,000 inmates in the United States are being held in solitary confinement without regard to their conduct in prison, he added.

Kennedy’s comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas.

“The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest. And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.

Source: Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2015