Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Reformers urge state to freeze executions

Reformers urge state to freeze executions
Death penalty isn't evenly applied, says a report by politicians, Indiana law experts

Gary Burris, Zachariah Melcher, Arthur P. Baird II, Darryl Jeter, Roger L. Long, Jerry E. Russell and John A. Redman all committed vicious murders in Indiana.

Only Burris was executed for his crime.
That disparity illustrates how inconsistently the state applies the death penalty, according to a panel that today will call on Indiana to suspend capital punishment and institute more safeguards for fairness and accuracy.

Gary Burris

The seven-member group is part of a national campaign by the American Bar Association project that began in 1997 to block executions nationally until similar issues are addressed in the 38 states where the death penalty is an option.

Indiana is the fifth state targeted by the campaign, whose recommendations have not yet been followed. Last year, similar panels in Alabama and Georgia urged moratoriums, but executions were not halted. The Florida and Arizona teams urged reforms but couldn't agree on the moratorium issue.

A handful of states have instituted moratoriums -- Illinois, in 2000 by then-Gov. George Ryan; New York, in 2004 by that state's highest court; and New Jersey, in 2006 by the state Legislature, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Some other states have stopped executing prisoners because of concerns over the effectiveness of their lethal injection procedures.

Indiana has 24 inmates on Death Row. Under a moratorium, executions would be halted, but courts still could sentence offenders to death.

A spokeswoman said Gov. Mitch Daniels declined to comment on the report.

The panel, called the Indiana Death Penalty Assessment Team, includes former Gov. Joe Kernan and state Sen. John Broden, both Democrats; defense attorneys; a former prosecutor; and a law professor.

The group called for a dozen changes. They would ask Indiana to:

Require law enforcement agencies to record video or audio of all interrogations.

Adopt stiffer qualifications for defense attorneys and bar them from handling more than two death penalty cases at once.

Create an independent statewide authority to assign attorneys to death penalty defendants. Attorneys now are appointed by judges or public defenders.

During Indiana Supreme Court sentencing appeals, consider whether the death penalty is being used consistently and for the worst offenders.

Address the findings of at least two studies showing that harsher sentences are given to murderers when their victims are white.

Ban the execution of offenders with severe mental illnesses.

Sonia Leerkamp, Hamilton County's prosecutor, said problems with Indiana's system aren't severe enough to merit a moratorium.

"Our system has so many safeguards that it really is one of the best around," said Leerkamp, a Republican who is starting her fourth term. "That's not to say that it's not problematical," with the extra scrutiny given to such cases causing long delays before execution.

The report noted some of Indiana's strengths. The state provides two attorneys for death penalty defendants, pays for expert witnesses and has a detailed clemency process before each execution.

Joel Schumm, the chairman of Indiana's panel, said problems highlighted in the report span all phases of a case and can snowball if not corrected. He is an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis.

Call Star reporter Jon Murray at (317) 444-2752.


Moratorium on death penalty?
A new report calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in Indiana will be released today during a news conference in the Statehouse.

The report was compiled by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project with help from a seven-member team of Hoosiers.

Five murder cases
The report highlights five crimes involving seven offenders that resulted in just one being executed -- showing Indiana's inconsistent use of the death penalty.
Gary Burris: Killed an Indianapolis cab driver in 1980, leaving the body nude and bound. An accomplice testified against Burris, and he was sentenced to death. Burris was executed in 1997.
Zachariah Melcher: Killed his wife, who was eight months pregnant, and the couple's 11-month-old son in April 2005 in Jeffersonville. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but Melcher pleaded guilty in exchange for life in prison without parole after the victims' family consented.
Arthur P. Baird II: Strangled his pregnant wife, then killed his parents using a butcher knife in 1985 in Montgomery County. He was sentenced to death but later was found to be psychotic. In 2005, with family members' and jurors' support, Gov. Mitch Daniels commuted the sentence to life in prison without parole.
Darryl Jeter: Killed an Indiana State Police trooper in 2003 alongside a Northwest Indiana highway. Prosecutors pressed for the death penalty, but a jury recommended life without parole.
Roger L. Long, Jerry E. Russell and John A. Redman: Kidnapped a 44-year-old mentally disabled Linton woman in 1995, kept her in an attic for two weeks and sexually assaulted her before killing her. Prosecutors never sought the death penalty, and each was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Indiana assessment team
Joel Schumm: chairman, associate professor at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis.
James J. Bell: attorney with Bingham McHale and a two-term chairman of the criminal justice section of the Indiana State Bar Association.
State Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend: member of the Indiana Senate committees on Corrections and Criminal and Civil Procedures.
Robert Gevers II: attorney, former Allen County prosecutor.
Marce Gonzales: attorney in Merrillville, concentrating in criminal defense, appeals and defense of lawyer discipline cases.
Former Gov. Joe Kernan
Paula Sites: attorney and assistant executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.

Sources: American Bar Association, Associated Press

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