abolishing the death penalty

Nevada should abolish the death penalty


March 9, Over the past few years many Nevadans have sought to pursue a better future by seriously reckoning with the state’s history of racial discrimination. Radio programs and public forums have held critical discussions surrounding the legacies of “sundown towns” in Northern Nevada and the problem of police brutality in Clark County’s recent past, alongside debates over the presence of Confederate symbols in a state once called the “Mississippi of the West.” 

Because of the efforts of scholars and activists throughout Nevada, state legislators have instituted a number of reforms to address issues of structural inequality and under representation, ranging from police reforms in 2012 and 2014, to the recent renaming of the Las Vegas airport in honor of the former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as the airport’s previous namesake, “Pat McCarran,” held a documented history of bigotry and antisemitism. Though these efforts are laudable, citizens of Nevada must be honest in realizing the state still uses a practice linked to a deeply troubling era of America’s past: the death penalty.

Questions surrounding the use of the death penalty in the 21st Century continue to grip the United States, and as Nevada is one of 27 states that still allows capital punishment, it is relevant to current discourses about the state’s social and political trajectory. Many opponents of capital punishment appropriately cite its significant cost to taxpayers by arguing that it is actually more expensive to pursue a death sentence than it is to keep someone in prison in perpetuity. In doing so, they are attempting to court fiscal conservatives by using an argument rooted in economics and financial responsibility. But there is a moral argument for ending the death penalty that is just as compelling, if not more so: the practice is intimately tied to violent structures of racism that permeated the legal structures in America’s past and that remain omnipresent in the current justice system.

Researchers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The Marshall Project have noted the deep racial disparities in and among those who are sentenced to the death penalty, suggesting that capital punishment continues, in many ways, the legacy of lynching that plagued the United States for nearly eight decades (1870s-1950s). Lynchings were used most frequently in the Jim Crow South against Black men to spread racist terrorism and enforce a social hierarchy predicated on white supremacy. These lynchings, though often condoned by local law enforcement, were “extrajudicial” murders conducted by white vigilantes who deemed themselves judge, jury, and executioner. The nearly 4,000 Black people lynched throughout the South were never given due process — and no white person was ever convicted for involvement in the ritualized murders throughout those years.

Though this brand of terror reigned for multiple generations, lynchings waned in number by the mid-twentieth century. However, many African Americans observed that the rise of capital punishment in the country’s legal apparatus did no more than clothe extra-judicial murder within racist court processes. As historian William B. Gravely notes, Black people and their allies viewed the capital punishment system as simply a “legal lynching” — and recent discoveries do highlight some troubling comparisons. 

Though the condemned go through a form of due process, researchers from EJI found that widespread systemic racism is exposed by the disproportionate representation of Black men on death row, including inadequate counsel, lack of representation on juries, and racist stereotypes that lead to the harsher sentencing of African Americans in the criminal justice system. For many unfamiliar with these racial disparities, the legality of capital punishment provides a façade that suggests a more just approach to the state-sanctioned execution of incarcerated people, but institutional racism ensures that Black men, particularly those innocent of the crime, are over represented in death sentences.

Nevada now has a chance to join other states in challenging this disturbing legacy. Similar discussions are currently being held in Virginia, as its Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty in February, setting a course to eliminate the practice and become the first southern state to do so. Given that Virginia once held the capital city of the Confederacy and displayed the most Confederate monuments in the country as recently as 2020, this should remind progressive-minded Nevadans that change is possible. In believing structural change is achievable and enacting legislation to dismantle practices that are rooted in racism, we can set our state’s future on a better course. Abolishing the death penalty is a necessary step in this process.

Wyoming considering repeal of death penalty


The state has had only one execution in 55 years.

March 9, Wyoming may become the next state to outlaw capital punishment.

bill was introduced in the state Senate last week by Republican Sen. Brian Boner that would end the death penalty as potential punishment for a murder conviction. Boner told ABC News that the current law, in effect since 1976, is antiquated and costs taxpayers over $750,000 a year.

In the last 55 years, the state has only held one execution, back in 1992, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks death row inmates.

“We are dealing with a significant budget crisis, and we’re looking at old rules that don’t work,” Boner told ABC News. “It’s time to get rid of it.”

The bill passed the state Senate’s revenue committee with a 4-1 vote on March 4 and will move on to a full vote. The legislative session ends April 2.

If the bill passes and is signed into law, Wyoming would become the 24th state to abolish the death penalty since the federal government allowed it in 1973.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, testified at the committee hearing. He told ABC News that Wyoming is following a similar path to one seen across the country, with fewer juries and judges giving out death penalty sentences. That decrease has garnered the attention of politicians on both sides of the aisle, Dunham added.

“We have seen an abolition in practice follow by an abolishing in the law,” Dunham said.

Dunham added that there is an increased sense of morality when it comes to executions because, on average, there has been one exoneration for every eight executions.

“It is no longer debatable that innocent people are going to be sentenced to death. It is no longer debatable that innocent people have been executed,” he said. “That’s given legislators of all political and philosophical beliefs great pause.”

Boner agreed and said that eliminating the death penalty in Wyoming would create a “more efficient criminal justice system.” Two years ago, a similar measure passed in the Wyoming House but failed in the Senate with a vote of 18-12. Boner said a lot has changed since then, particularly during the pandemic.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon told legislators last summer that he was “very seriously” considering imposing a moratorium on the use of capital punishment, claiming it is “a luxury that we cannot afford.”

Dunham said that there will likely be a bigger push from advocates to repeal the law and more pressure on other states to re-examine their policies. Last month, Virginia’s Legislature passed a bill to end death penalty in the state.

“Regardless of what the outcome is,” Dunham added, “what we are seeing in Wyoming is the declining support of capital punishment across all demographic groups.”

Oklahoma delays 2 executions because of drug shortage


march 18, 2014

Oklahoma delays 2 executions because of drug shortage

An appeals court in Oklahoma on Tuesday postponed the execution of a convicted murderer slated for Thursday because the state has run out of lethal injection drugs. A second prisoner’s death sentence slated for next week was also delayed.

The case is the latest in a growing controversy nationwide over the use of lethal injection for executions. Sources for the necessary drugs have dried up, and states with death penalties are scrambling to find more.

The state attorney general’s office conceded in court documents Monday that state executioners have run out of pentobarbital, a necessary barbiturate used in the execution process. The state lawyers may have to find another combination of drugs to carry out the executions.

Four members of the five-judge appellate panel on Tuesday ordered that both executions be delayed.

(Source: USA Today)

After Death Row in Texas, I’m Fighting to End the Death Penalty – Kerry Max Cook


february 22, 2014

My name is Kerry Max Cook, but for two decades, I was known as “Cook, Execution number 600.” Innocent of the murder and rape I was accused of in 1977, my home became a tiny death row cell in Texas, the state that kills more people than anywhere else in the U.S. by far — including 141 of my fellow inmates before my release in 1999. By then, my only brother had been murdered and my Dad had died of cancer. My Mom died soon after. I was stabbed, raped and routinely abused on death row. My ordeal spanned two generations of the Smith County District Attorney’s office, two wrongful convictions, two reversals of conviction, a walk to the execution chamber, and three capital murder trials. My legal team and I have been unable to find a worse case of prosecutorial misconduct in Texan history.

I avoided a fourth trial only by pleading no contest, while making no admission of guilt. I have never been officially exonerated. Author John Grisham said, “If it were fiction, no one would believe it …”

I am, in fact, innocent. Another man’s DNA was found on the victim’s clothing two months after my release. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals accused Smith County prosecutors of “willful misconduct” in my case. Nonetheless that office remains determined to stop me clearing my name. My lawyers are working to file an application for writ of habeas corpus in coming months, hopefully prompting the appeals court in Austin to officially exonerate me and end my 36-year-old nightmare.

It all began in 1977. I was 20 and working as a bartender when a waitress said the manager wanted to see me. I stepped into a pitch-black room that was usually lit by fluorescent lighting and fumbled for the switch. Suddenly, hands reached out to grab both sides of me. The silver Smith & Wesson handcuffs crashed down on my wrist and I heard the detective’s words, “Kerry Max Cook, you’re under arrest for the capital murder of Linda Edwards” — a name I didn’t even recognize.

At the police station, they used my head as a toilet plunger. I knew the policeman was lying as he rammed my head repeatedly down the bowl filled with dark urine, screamed at me to confess and told me they had found my DNA on the body. I wept for my mother and father, for anyone, to help.

Even though I still bear the mental and physical scars and ongoing indignities of my wrongful conviction and imprisonment, I consider myself lucky. I have a wife and son. I have powerful allies — including Amnesty International, which found me in a dark cell and helped raise awareness of my wrongful conviction in 1991. It literally saved my life. I was so proud to be introduced by Susan Sarandon at Amnesty’s Bringing Human Rights Home concert in Brooklyn February 5 and address the audience as my 13-year-old Kerry Justice Cook looked on. I was proud to honor a powerful, global movement of activists who carry Amnesty’s torch for human rights — including my right to life. That is why I support Amnesty’s abolition work and the efforts by courageous activists on the ground, most urgently in New Hampshire, where a repeal vote in the state House is anticipated early next month.

The death penalty should be abolished across the United States, and everywhere. We do not need any more mistakes. We know that 143 people have served time on US death rows for crimes they were wrongfully convicted of. And imagine this. On appeal, the only question becomes whether the defendant received a fair and impartial trial. So if the evidence is made up, like in my case, you die.

The price of this system is a life. Of course the odds are stacked in your favor if you have access to financial resources, but you won’t be surprised to hear that you don’t meet too many people like that on death row.

One of death row’s other dirty little secrets is that it is a repository for every conceivable mental illness. Its population consists largely of untreated, traumatized children who grew up into broken adults. There are exceptions, of course, but I do not believe that even the guilty on death row are irredeemable. As Rosalind says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “Time is the old justice that examines all such offenders.” If my case proves anything, it is that only time can tell if someone is guilty.

No prosecutor should have the power to end another human life. No other living soul should endure what I did. So I am praying now for victory, by Amnesty International USA and all those who are pushing to end this barbaric practice, in New Hampshire, and everywhere. Then, my nightmare will be over.

Click here to read more about Kerry’s fight for justice, and here to read about his work on self-empowerment.

NEW JERSEY – Exonerated death row survivors spread message to halt death penalty – Kirk Bloodsworth and Shujaa Graham


february 20, 2014

Two men who were on death row before being found to be wrongly accused spoke Thursday night in Newark at the invitation of advocates who would like to abolish the death penalty.

Kirk Bloodsworth and Shujaa Graham, members of Witness to Innocent, shared their experiences at the University of Delaware as part of a series of events supported by a group of local religious leaders and the Delaware Repeal Project.

In the coming days 15 members of Witness to Innocent will attend events at Delaware churches and community hubs, including the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, in an effort to promote Senate Bill 19, which would end the death penalty in the state.

On Saturday, a group of local religious leaders plan to gather to call on state leaders to support the measure during an event at Limestone Presbyterian Church, 3201 Limestone Road, in Wilmington. The public is invited to gather at the church at noon Saturday to speak to members of Witness to Innocent, see a presentation and take part in a roundtable discussion.

Bloodsworth was the first person in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence, according to Witness to Innocent, where he serves as director of advocacy. In 1985 he was sentenced to death in Baltimore County, Md., for the murder and rape of a 9-year-old girl. A year later, DNA evidence revealed he was wrongly convicted, according to his profile on the Witness to Innocent website.

Graham was sentenced to death after the 1973 slaying of a prison gaurd in California, according to Witness to Innocent. His conviction was overturned in 1979 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Two years later he was found innocent and released, according to Witness to Innocent’s profile of Graham online.

Death Penalty By Electric Chair Could Make A Comeback For US Executions


february 6, 2014 (huffington)

Virginia could revive the electric chair as a method to execute prisoners, as European companies and one major distributor in the US block the sale of drugs required for lethal injections.

 

Experiments with a new ‘cocktail’ of drugs have proved controversial so far. Last month, murderer Dennis McGuires took 25 minutes to die, and was seen gasping painfully in his last moments when he was executed in Ohio.

 

The Washington Post reported that Virginia could soon have the power to compel prisoners to the electric chair, with a new law going through the state government’s house of representatives.

At the moment, death row prisoners in Virginia are allowed to choose between lethal injection and electrocution.

 

If lawmakers block the plan, a de facto moratorium on executions could be forced by inmates, who could legitimately demand execution by lethal injection, with the state having no facilities to carry that out.

 

Former Illinois governor released from custody


Good luck to George Ryan, who as Illinois governor jump-started modern progress in abolishing the death penalty by first enacting a moratorium on executions and then in one of his last acts of governor, he commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates on Illinois’ death row. Three inmates had their sentences reduced to 40 years in prison, while the remaining 165 received life in prison. The Illinois death penalty was finally abolished in 2011.

(CNN) – Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan has been released from federal custody, according to Bureau of Prisons spokesperson, Chris Burke.

Ryan had been on home confinement for the past five months in Kankakee, Illinois. He will now be on supervised release for the next year.

The former Republican governor was serving a 6 1/2-year sentence on racketeering and fraud convictions.

The disgraced ex-governor was convicted in April 2006 of fraud in a case stemming from bribes paid for various state licenses. The Supreme Court turned down his appeal in 2008.

His wife, Lura Lynn Lowe, passed away in 2011 while he was in custody but he was temporarily released so he could be with her during her final hours.

Ryan served as governor from 1999-2003. In one of his last acts of governor, he commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates on Illinois’ death row. Three inmates had their sentences reduced to 40 years in prison, while the remaining 165 received life in prison.