Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Legislative updates in the news

February 4, 2007

Legislative updates in the news

While working on this week’s edition of the, ummm, weekly, a couple interesting sentencing stories.

In Nebraska the LB 476 appears to be headed for a floor vote.

A bill to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska appears headed to debate by the full Legislature for the first time since 1988.

The Judiciary Committee advanced the repeal measure, Legislative Bill 476, on a 6-0 vote Wednesday after a public hearing.

Death penalty opponents used the hearing to attack capital punishment for its costs and lengthy appeals. Many convicted killers have resided on Nebraska’s death row for decades. The state last executed someone in 1997.

The bill would replace the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole and require convicted killers to pay restitution for the pain and suffering of their victims.

State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, committee chairman, said he found testimony about the death penalty’s cost compelling.

“I was struck by the money being spent and that the penalty is not being carried out,” Ashford said.

In New Jersey, the state’s leading newspaper asks the question many have been asking in private, including myself, is the New Jersey Death Penalty Commission’s calls for a wildly expanded life without parole simply too much to stomach.

When a state commission recommended last month that New Jersey abolish the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without parole, some lawmakers called it the latest example of going soft on crime.

But a Star-Ledger analysis of trials since August 1982, when capital punishment was reinstated, shows scores of murderers would have been punished more harshly under the life-without-parole bill proposed by the Death Penalty Study Commission.

* * * *

Every murderer sentenced to “life” imprisonment since June 29, 2001, must spend 63 years, nine months in prison before becoming eligible for parole — more than double the old minimum. But in most murder cases, judges still have discretion to impose a prison term as short as 30 years.

One exception is if a jury determines the murder was “aggravated.” In such cases, a 2000 law mandates life without parole. However, that provision kicks in only when prosecutors seek a death sentence and fail to get it.

[New Jersey’s Public Defender Yvonne Smith Segars [poignantly stated] the commission’s streamlined procedure may make prosecutors more aggressive in seeking life without parole, perhaps to use it as “the new hammer” in plea negotiations. She predicted it will most often be used against the poor and minorities.

And if juries can no longer consider a defendant’s redeeming qualities when imposing the state’s harshest punishment, “at the minimum we would like to see the judge have that discretion,” Segars said.

In Washington state an abolition bill & a New Jersey style study/moratorium commission have been introduced. As the story below indicates, there are some big questions in Washington state following a plea to life for one of America’s most notorious serial killers, Gary Ridgway, the so-called “Green River Killer”:

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng’s decision this week to seek the death penalty in the slaying of a soldier’s family has renewed discussion about whether capital punishment is good policy for Washington state.

While lawmakers say there’s no rush to abolish it, House and Senate bills introduced this session in Olympia would attempt to limit its use. One would ban execution unless DNA evidence, a confession or other sophisticated technology proves guilt. Another, filed in the House on Wednesday, would allow defendants to avoid the death penalty by showing they were mentally impaired.

A third effort would put a moratorium on executions until July 2008 - though no one appears in danger of being executed before then - while a task force studies the application of the death penalty in Washington. The House version of the task force bill is set for a Judiciary Committee hearing Friday.

The topic has gained currency since the state Supreme Court upheld Washington’s capital punishment law 5-4 last year and invited lawmakers to reconsider the death penalty’s fairness in light of Maleng’s decision in 2003 to spare the life of the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway. Ridgway pleaded guilty to killing 48 women, and helped authorities find remains, in exchange for life in prison without release.

“That’s an ongoing discussion that we need to have,” said Rep. Chris Strow, a Republican from Clinton who sponsored the DNA bill. “The biggest utility for the death penalty in Washington state right now is for forcing a plea bargain. We already have a system that makes it virtually impossible to force anyone to go under the needle.”

In Montana the push is on for repeal of that State’s death penalty and to impose LWOP on all those currently sentenced to death:

In 1973, James “Ziggy” Ziegler’s 78-year-old father was sitting in his car waiting outside a grocery store when he was shot in the head. After the police caught the two young men responsible, Ziegler said he couldn’t escape one hard fact.

“There was nothing that could happen to those two boys that would bring my father back,” he said.

Instead of focusing on the anger he felt for her father’s murderers, the former Yellowstone County commissioner became an outspoken critic of the death penalty.
This week, Ziegler is scheduled to join several other death-penalty opponents, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s brother, David Kaczynski, to support a bill by Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, commuting death-penalty sentences in Montana to life imprisonment. The bill is scheduled to be heard Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
On Tuesday night, Ziegler, Kaczynski and others are scheduled to speak at a public forum at Carroll College to discuss the death penalty. The various civil-rights organizations and church groups supporting Harrington’s bill organized the event.
Efforts to abolish the death penalty have failed in each of the past three legislative sessions. But the bill’s supporters said last summer’s execution of convicted murderer David Dawson at Montana State Prison focused the public’s attention on the death penalty and may help their efforts to abolish it.

“That execution brought the situation to the forefront more than any other event in the state of Montana could have,” said Moe Wosepka, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference.

In Brussels MEP’s have passed a resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions:

Ratcheting up European Union efforts to ban the death penalty worldwide, EU lawmakers on Thursday called for immediate action to secure international support for the bid.

A universal moratorium aimed at abolishing the death penalty worldwide should be established ‘immediately and unconditionally,’ Euro MPs said in a resolution.

Germany, which currently holds the agenda-setting EU presidency, must act urgently and submit a resolution for such decree to the United Nations assembly, MEPs demanded.

‘The abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and to the progressive development of human rights,’ Euro deputies stressed.

The EU said Wednesday that it would continue to oppose capital punishment ‘in all cases and under all circumstances because it considers the death penalty to be a cruel and inhuman punishment.’

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