Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Death Penalty is Killing Itself

Text of Remarks

To the
Fellowship of Reconciliation
October 21, 2010
Louisville, KY

The Death Penalty is Killing Itself


Donald Vish
Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

The death penalty is too broke to fix, to risky to use and too expensive to keep. It is the penal equivalent of Russian roulette: most of the time nothing happens but every now and then somebody gets killed.

But we may be on the verge of a lot happening.

Death Penalty History: 1957-2008
The modern history of death penalty in Kentucky undermines its own credibility as a just, legitimate and effective instrument of public policy. Since 1956, there have been thousands of murders committed in Kentucky and many were eligible for a death sentence.

Today, there are 35 people on death row and four people have been executed in the last 53 years.

Kelly Moss was electrocuted against his will in 1962; Harold McQueen was electrocuted against his will in 1997; Eddie Lee Harper decided to stop his legal appeals and requested execution by lethal injection in 1999; Marco Chapman dismissed his lawyers and his legal appeals and was executed by lethal injection in 2008.

The modern history of the death penalty in Kentucky mocks itself as a penal option that is intended to deter crime, exact retribution for heinous murders and provide society with the comfort and closure that comes from knowing that justice will be done in an even-handed manner.

How can four executions in 53 years deter anyone from doing anything? What does it say to victims’ families, friends and society at-large that out of thousands of murders in 53 years only 4 were deemed sufficiently heinous to merit execution? What is the citizenry to make of a system that can take up to thirty years to conclude its official deliberations?

What are judges, law enforcement officials and citizens to make of a justice system that seems to select for execution only those murderers that share, shall we say, certain similar demographics and even ‘geographics’? And how shall we reconcile our social and civic and legal commitment to fairness and the even-handed administration of the law with the knowledge that innocent people have been sent to death row?

Death Penalty History: 2009—present
The attorney general requested three death warrants from the governor in November 2009. Before the governor could act on the request, the Kentucky Supreme Court suspended executions in Kentucky until the Kentucky Department of Corrections published the details of the procedures it uses for execution. The DOC complied and new and revised procedures were back on the books by May, 2010. The governor began the procedure for setting execution dates for the three men when he discovered the state had a limited supply of a key drug used in lethal injections, enough for only one dose, and even that supply expired in October 2010. So, the governor asked his justice secretary to formulate a selection process so that at least one of the three could be executed while the others waited for fresh supplies of the lethal drug needed to complete the injection cocktail. The Department of Corrections has said that a new supply cannot arrive before the first quarter of 2010.

Status of the Wilson Case and Executions Generally?
The death warrant authorizing Wilson’s execution expired at midnight September 16, 2010. According to representations made by the Department of Corrections to the Franklin Circuit Court, a key ingredient in the lethal injection mix will not be available until the first quarter of 2011. As a result, there is no current date for Wilson’s execution and the state lacks the chemical means to execute until the first quarter of 2011.

There are also legal issues pending about the Wilson case that may affect executions generally:

1) The Kentucky Supreme Court is reviewing a decision by the Kenton Circuit Court denying Wilson’s request for DNA testing and a determination of whether he is exempt from execution due to mental retardation. If the Supreme Court grants Wilson’s request, an evidentiary hearing will be scheduled in Kenton Circuit Court. It is highly improbable that the governor would seek to execute Wilson before a hearing was concluded and it is highly probable that he would be enjoined if he did. This ruling does not affect capital punishment generically.

2) The Kentucky Supreme Court is also reviewing a case from Franklin Circuit Court involving the new execution procedures written by the Kentucky Department of Corrections pursuant to a November 2009 order of the Kentucky Supreme Court.

This case has the potential to impact all executions in Kentucky.

Wilson intervened in the case and the trial judge enjoined the state from executing Wilson while the court was reviewing the legal adequacy of the new execution procedures. In the course of enjoining the Wilson execution, the trial judge expressed official interest in (i) the lack of procedures to test for mental retardation prior to execution and (ii) possible legal flaws in Wilson’s trial where he was given no choice but to represent himself most of the time. Judge Shepherd has established an expedited briefing schedule on these matters, which concludes on October 25th.

The Kentucky Supreme Court is currently reviewing legal briefs from the litigants concerning the Franklin Circuit Court case, after which it may rule that the case is moot since there is no current death warrant applicable to Wilson; or, it might affirm the judge’s ruling, the effect of which would be to require the Department of Corrections to supplement its execution procedures to provide for mental retardation testing; or, it might reverse the trial judge’s ruling in effect finding that the judge had no good reason to delay the Wilson execution. In the latter case, Wilson would be scheduled for execution if and when (1) the governor signs a new death warrant and (2) the state receives new supplies of the drugs needed for the lethal injection.

If the Supreme Court finds the case is moot or it agrees with Judge Shepherd, the case would nevertheless be returned to Franklin Circuit Court for such further hearings as the trial judge may require in order to render a final judgment on the legal adequacy of the new execution procedures.

Facts about the Death Penalty(As of October, 2010)

35 states have the death penalty
15 do not
New Mexico and New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2009 and 2006.
1170-- Number of executions since resumption of executions in 1976
1999-- Stands as the year with the most executions—98
2006 – 53
Race of defendants: W-57%, B-34%, H-7%
Race of victims: W-79%, B-14%
Race of death row inmates: B-42%, W-45%
Exonerations through 2009 in 26 states—139
Since 1999, number of death sentences has dropped dramatically:
1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Sentences 284 235 167 169 153 140 138 121 115 111 (2008 is projected)
Kentucky Death Row 34 (includes one woman)
Gallup Poll: October 2008 Gallup Poll found overall support for death penalty was 64% (80% in 1994). Poll also revealed when respondents are given choice of life without parole as alternate sentencing option, more choose life without parole (48%) than death penalty (47%). (11-17-2008).
Number of Executions before 1976 424
Current Kentucky Death Row Population 35
Women on Death Row (Kentucky) 1
Southern states accounted for 95 percent of the executions in 2008. Texas accounted for 16 of 32 executions as of August 2009 and over 37 % of all executions in the U.S since 1977. Over 33% of the prisoners on Texas Death Row come from the county where Houston is located. In 2007 (the last year for which statistics are available), juries throughout the United State returned 115 death sentences. Over 60 % were in the South. A 2002 study found that 2/3rds of American counties have never imposed the death penalty since 1977. Only 3 % (92 out of 3,066) of the nation’s counties account for 50 percent of its death sentences in that 32 year period. When the U.S. resumed executions in 1977, only 16 nations had abolished the death penalty; the number has since grown to 135 (60 retain) (FL Bar 10-01-09—11). Five nations are responsible for +90% of the world’s executions: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China - and the United States.

The death penalty is sanctioned by the law of the land but seems to be ruled by the law of unintended consequences when it is not being ruled by the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics (also known as Murphy’s Law).

A recent example of Murphy’s Law is furnished by a lethal injection attempt in Ohio where a prisoner in the death chamber was repeatedly stuck with a needle to administer the lethal drugs but was eventually sent back to his cell when the prison personnel could find not a vein to use. And a recent example of the law of unintended consequences is furnished by an FBI report that showed states with high death penalty usage have a higher murder rate!

Of the Wilson case, Judge Boyce Martin of the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit wrote earlier this month:

The rape and murder of Debbie Pooley was a heartbreaking and reprehensible
act. But at Gregory Wilson’s murder trial, the state’s ignominy began…*** virtually every branch of our justice system failed —from the judiciary, which allowed a sex scandal between a colleague of the trial judge and Wilson’s co-defendant to jeopardize the fairness of Wilson’s trial; to the defense counsel, who were woefully unqualified and left Wilson abandoned at trial. The judiciary failed both Wilson and our legal system in this case because a judge’s unseemly conduct created a risk of bias that undermined the fairness of Wilson’s trial. Brenda Humphrey, Wilson’s co-defendant and the woman who identified him as Pooley’s killer, was having an illicit sexual affair with Judge James Gilliece, a colleague and good friend of the trial judge during Wilson’s trial:***
…This scandal is an embarrassment to all segments of the judiciary, from the judge
who violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by having a sexual relationship with a
defendant to the court officers who broke their oath of office by ferrying this defendant to and from the judge’s chambers for sex. When any trial is infiltrated by this sort of sordid corruption, it demeans our judicial system and undermines public confidence in its judgments. When a criminal defendant’s life is at stake, it is horrifying.
Perhaps even more egregiously than the judiciary, Wilson’s defense counsel
failed him and the principles of our legal system. From the very beginning of the case, Wilson’s defense was clearly a charade:****
…Over my more than thirty years on the bench, Wilson’s trial stands out as one of
the worst examples that I have seen of the unfairness and abysmal lawyering that
pervade capital trials. Although I will continue to apply the law of the Supreme Court as required by my oath, I must reiterate my belief that “the idea that the death penalty is fairly and rationally imposed in this country is a farce.” Moore v. Parker, 425 F.3d
No. 09-6306 Wilson v. Rees, et al. Page 7250, 270 (6th Cir. 2005) (Martin, J., dissenting). To maintain the legitimacy of our adversarial system of justice, we must be confident that its two foundational components are sound: a neutral and fair arbiter, and adequate legal representation for both parties.
If either pillar is fractured, as in this case, then we are left with a system that does not function. Its results cannot be trusted, particularly when a life is at stake. When a person is sentenced to death in a kangaroo court such as Wilson’s, with an illicit sexual affair taking place between a co-defendant and a colleague of the trial judge and no semblance of qualified defense counsel, it irreparably tarnishes our legal system. Until we reform this broken system, we cannot rely on it to determine life and death.

October 21, 2010