Sunday, 5 August 2007

Fighting death: Local groups voice opposition to use of capital punishment

BY TRISH HOLLENBECK Northwest Arkansas Times

Posted on Sunday, August 5, 2007

Asking for and getting the death penalty are uncommon occurrences in Washington County and, as the Fourth Judicial District Prosecutor’s Office prepares to take a death penalty case to trial in November, voices in the area have expressed opposition.

Washington County Prosecutor John Threet has asked for the death penalty for Abon Tili, 27, of Springdale, who is charged with rape and capital murder in the Oct. 21 death of a 10-yearold Emiti Freddy in Springdale. Tili’s trial is set to begin on Nov. 5.

This is the second death penalty case Threet has planned to take to trial in the past two years.

The Omni Center for Peace, Justice & Ecology Human Rights Committee and others met July 18 with Threet to voice their opposition to the death penalty.

“ The death penalty victimizes everybody because it makes us all complicit in a state murder. It’s a murder, that’s all there is to it, ” said Mark Swaney, chairman of the human rights committee and president of the Green Party in Arkansas, during an interview this week.

The committee brought a petition to Threet with the names of at least 160 citizens in Washington and Madison counties opposing the use of the death penalty, considering it morally wrong and asking Threet not to seek it in any case.

Swaney described the meeting with Threet as “ very cordial. ”

“ We just don’t like the death penalty, ” he said.

Threet described the group’s members as nice and polite, but said he still believes that the death penalty is needed, if only rarely.

“ Ninety-nine percent of homicides don’t deserve the death penalty, ” he said.

Death penalty in Arkansas
There are 38 men on death row in Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction — 14 white men and 24 black men. No women are on death row.

The last execution in the state was of Eric Nance, convicted of murdering Julie Heath, 18, of Malvern, in 1993. He was executed in November 2005.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has set the execution date for Terrick Terrell Nooner, 36, from Pulaski County, to be Sept. 18, according to the governor’s spokesman, Matt DeCample.

Nooner was sentenced to death for the March 1993 murder of Scot Stobaugh a 22-year-old University of Arkansas at Little Rock student during a robbery at a Laundromat.

There have been 478 executions in Arkansas before 1976 and 27 since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. It is based in Washington, D. C.

The U. S. Supreme Court in 1972 struck down state death penalty laws, which was a ruling that brought federal executions to a stop, as well. In 1976, the court reinstated the death penalty after adoption of new procedures.

The first execution in Arkansas after reenactment was in 1990, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Arkansas has the option of life without parole for capital murder.

The method of execution in the state is lethal injection, however, electrocution is an option for the condemned if he or she was sentenced before July 4, 1983. (See box ). The location of death row is at the Varner Super-Max Unit in Grady, about 30 miles south of Pine Bluff in Lincoln County. Jurors decide the death penalty as punishment in Arkansas. The governor of Arkansas has the authority to grant clemency of those condemned to die.

Rare sentence

The death penalty has been rare in Washington County for quite some time. The last time a person got the death penalty was Billy Gale Henry in 1981, when a Washington County jury found him guilty of capital murder and sentenced him to death by electrocution for the March 20, 1981, killing of West Fork Police Chief Paul Mueller on south U. S. 71. Kim Smith, who is now a Fourth Circuit Judicial District judge, prosecuted the case. He charged Henry as an accomplice in the case and was not the trigger man. Rodney Britton, the man who shot Mueller, died in a shoot-out a few days later, based on court records in the Washington County Archives. Britton had shot Mueller after the police chief made a traffic stop. Henry was in Britton’s car and had gotten out of the vehicle before Britton shot Mueller, according to court records. The car had been pulled over for suspected DWI and after a robbery of the Pizza Hut North in Fayetteville, according to court records. After the shooting, Mueller’s body was found near his patrol car and Henry, who suffered a wound, was nearby after Britton had driven the car, which was registered to Henry. Henry asked for the death penalty when he had a chance to address jurors, but his lawyer, Michael Dabney, appealed after they gave it to him. The Arkansas Supreme Court in February 1983 reduced Henry’s sentence to life in prison without parole, according to court records. The last Washington County person the State of Arkansas put to death was Vick Tobay, 24, who was killed in the electric chair on Aug. 14, 1920, for robbery-murder, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction. He was a 24-year-old Native American, according to the Espy File, a database of executions in the United States and the earlier colonies from 1608 to 2002. (Source: Death Penalty Information Center; list of 15, 269 executions compiled by M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smylka, and made available through the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. ) The last legal hanging in Washington County was of Omer Davis, according to information from county records. He was hanged on Sept. 11, 1913, on the gallows on the north side of the old Washington County Jail, just south of the old Washington County Courthouse, where Davis was tried for the murder of his teacher, Nellie Moneyhun.

More recently

As chief deputy prosecutor under Terry Jones, Threet sought the death penalty last year against 24-year-old Fernando Navarro of Springdale for the November 2004 stabbing death of David Edwards, a Springdale musician. It was the first Washington County death penalty trial in about 20 years. The jury ended up convicting Navarro of firstdegree, not capital, murder. He received a two life sentences, one for the murder charge and the other for accomplice to aggravated robbery. Threet said he will not seek the death penalty against Lorita Lanej, 23, who is accused of killing a toddler Dale Annam in Fayetteville in November. The prosecutor has yet to announce his decision on Jesse Westeen, 20, and Gregory Decay, 21, who are accused of shooting Kevin B. Jones and Kendall R. Rice, both 24, in their apartment at Club at the Creek in Fayetteville in April.

Points in defense, against

Information the Omni Center put out after the meeting last month with Threet states that, “ Even though Mr. Threet is an engaging and friendly man, we still have questions about his thinking on using the death penalty. ” During the visit with Threet, according to the information sheet, one of the points he used in defense of the practice was that it is a good tool to pressure a defendant to accept a lesser conviction (because of that, the state does not have to go to trial every time; frequently people plead guilty to avoid going to trial with the possibility of the penalty hanging over them. ) “ The ends do not justify the means when the means are immoral, ” Swaney said in an interview this week. Threet said that families of victims may want it, which, “ carries considerable weight” for the prosecutor, according to the Omni Center information. Swaney said that Threet does not represent the family of the victim, but the people of this state. Threet agrees with that, but said he will not ignore what they have to say. “ I want to know what their opinion is, ” he said. Swaney said that victims have rights and he supports them, but added, “ They’re exactly the same rights that everybody else has. That’s exactly why we have courts, so we don’t devolve into a society where blood revenge is what we do. ”

Former prosecutor

While acknowledging that Jones “ always maintained that he supported the death penalty, ” Swaney said, “ I don’t think I know of any case where he ever asked for it. ” Jones contemplated the death penalty in the case of Jeffery Grinder, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in 2004 to robbing and bludgeoning to death 77-year-old Pat Gardner of rural Springdale on Sept. 2, 2003, with a dry-wall hammer ax. Jones said that he probably asked for the death penalty in several cases while he was prosecutor, but either the victim’s family came forward and did not want to pursue it, or a defense lawyer offered a life sentence plea. He said he never went to trial with a death penalty case. “ I would always take a life sentence, ” Jones said, adding that death penalty cases tend to get overturned. Threet said that death penalty cases are difficult to try and should be. Even so, Jones said there has to be an ultimate punishment, “ for people like Jeffrey Dahmer who commit horrible crimes that just don’t deserve to be here any more. There are some cases that just scream for the death penalty. ” In a trial, Threet said, there is always one person in the courtroom who believes more strongly in the death penalty than he does and that is the defendant — because, Threet said, the defendant did give the victim the benefit of a jury or defense attorney in deciding to kill.

Good of society

Swaney said he is interested in what is good for society as whole. “ I’m not particularly sympathetic with murderers. Personally, I don’t care much about what happens to them, ” he said. “ But the problem is, the person has a family. The State has no right to punish innocent people for things that they didn’t do. ” He said the death penalty is unnecessary to protect society. Threet said that the death penalty is certainly a specific deterrent to the person who gets it as punishment. “ There’s debate about whether it’s a general deterrent, ” he said.

Religious issues

Religious reasons often prompt opposition to the death penalty. “ The Episcopal Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, and, I think most other Christian denominations that have stated a position on the death penalty, opposes the death penalty, and I oppose it personally, ” said Rev. Lowell Grisham of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, one of the people who met with Threet on July 18. “ I follow someone who was a victim of the death penalty who was wrongly executed, ” he said, referring to Jesus Christ. “ I don’t believe our human justice system is infallible and perfect, and when you decide to take the life of someone who is in your power, that is absolute and final, and, if you make a mistake, you can’t go back and make any amends, ” Grisham said. “ Innocent people have been executed in this country. ” Grisham said that if the death penalty is used as a strategic card that a prosecutor can “ play in order to save a family the exquisite pain of a trial and in order to get a plea, I can understand the rationale. “ The problem comes if you have to go through with a death sentence. I think you’re flirting with injustice. ” One of many things, he said, that troubles him about the death penalty is that, “ by the time we execute someone, usually the person we are executing is a very different person from the person who committed the crime. ” They often have grown, repented and made amends, “ as far as they could, ” he said. “ Even if they haven’t, if we execute someone, we take away the opportunity that that person can grow into a place of repentance and wholeness, and that’s always a humane and Christian goal, ” Grisham said. Threet said that the person might also kill somebody while in prison, or if he or she escapes. Those denominations, besides the Roman Catholic Church and Episcopalian Church, that are officially opposed to it include the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker ), the Unitarian Universalist Church and the United Methodist Church.

Victims ’ families

Grisham also talked about the connection between the death penalty and victims’ families. “ We want to take care of and support victimized families. I know some families feel that they will not have closure until the person that injured their loved one is dead, ” he said. “ I can empathize with that feeling, but sometimes, if our justice is such that the family knows someone will never be able to hurt another person again, often that can be reassuring, ” he said, referring to life sentences. “ I’ve known families who have been troubled by the execution of a person who hurt them, when they realize that that person also has a family. ” Grisham added, “ I think there’s an incredible cost to society when we take other people’s lives this way, and I think it poisons us. ”

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