By Gloria Rubac
Published Oct 14, 2007 11:23 PM
“I still have a smile on my face, and such a tremendous weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” said Lawrence Foster this week. His grandson, Kenneth Foster Jr., was spared the executioner’s needle just six hours before he was to be put to death in Texas on Aug. 30.
Since the victory of Foster’s death sentence being commuted to life in prison, the fight against executions has been like that rolling stone—it’s gathering no moss. One event after another has either been a welcome blast of good news for abolitionists or has been so outrageously bad that it is shocking people’s consciousness.
On Sept. 25 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge filed by two Kentucky death row prisoners, Ralph Baze and Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr. Their challenge claims that the state’s lethal injection process is cruel and unusual punishment because it can inflict unnecessary pain and suffering.
This case has broad national implications.
The only time the U.S. Supreme Court ever ruled directly on a method of execution was in 1878, when it upheld the use of the firing squad. In 1999, the justices agreed to hear a challenge to Florida’s use of the electric chair, but the state substituted lethal injection for electrocution before the case could be decided.
Also on Sept. 25, Michael Richard, a mentally disabled man from Houston, was executed. The chief judge of Texas’ highest court refused to stay open an extra 20 minutes to hear Richard’s appeal on the lethal injection issue after his attorneys called saying their computer had malfunctioned and they needed the extra 20 minutes to present their appeal.
Judge Sharon Keller, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ presiding judge, refused the request and didn’t even tell several other judges who stayed late expecting an appeal. They expressed their anger publicly.
Her callous decision put Texas on the front page of the New York Times and into many foreign media as editorial after editorial in major newspapers expressed shock and dismay.
Two days after Richard was executed, Carlton Turner was scheduled for execution in Texas on Sept. 27. His case was presented to the Texas Court of Criminal appeals and turned down. Then the U.S. Supreme Court took his appeal based on the lethal injection issue and granted him a stay.
Texas had yet another execution scheduled for Oct. 3. Heliberto Chi, a native of Honduras, was also granted a stay, this time by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. It became apparent that executions were going to stop until the Supreme Court meets next spring or summer at the earliest.
Shedding new light on death penalty
A recent four-part news series published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “A Matter of Life or Death,” stated that Georgia’s death penalty is “as predictable as a lightening strike.” Based on an investigation of 2,328 murder convictions between Jan.1, 1995, and Dec. 31, 2004, the paper determined that the state’s capital punishment system is unfairly shaped by racial and geographic bias.
According to a new study released by the American Bar Association, Ohio’s capital punishment system was declared so flawed that it should be suspended while the state conducts a thorough review of its fairness and accuracy.
The study, conducted by a 10-member panel of Ohio attorneys appointed by the ABA, found that the state’s death penalty is prone to racial and geographic imbalances and that it meets only four of the 93 ABA recommendations to ensure a fair capital punishment system.
“Regardless of one’s views of the morality of the death penalty, it is beyond question that if Ohio is to have a death penalty it needs to be one that is fair, accurate and provides due process to all capital defendants and those on death row. Unfortunately, this is not the case,” said Phyllis Crocker, a Cleveland State University law professor and member of the Ohio review team.
In a recent meeting with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst urged legislators to re-examine the state law that allows an accomplice to be tried by the same judge and jury as the shooter in murder cases. He agreed with Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to commute Kenneth Foster’s death sentence to life in prison based on similar concerns.
Dewhurst also called on legislators to establish a state innocence commission to study wrongful convictions and possible reforms to the criminal justice system. “We only want the truly guilty to be subject to punishment in Texas. None of us want an innocent person convicted. ... I’d like the Senate to coalesce on a position,” Dewhurst said.
His concerns, in large part, stem from a series of 14 DNA exonerations in Dallas County, which has reversed more convictions because of DNA evidence than any other U.S. county.
In addition, just this week in Houston, where concerns about wrongful convictions and the handling of DNA evidence have gained substantial attention in recent years, DNA evidence has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to release Ronald Taylor, a man convicted of sexual assault in 1995.
“At the HPD Crime Lab, it is not just DNA evidence that sends people to death row. Three people I know were sent to death row because of faulty ballistics testimony. They are Nanon Williams, Johnnie Bernal, and Martin Draughon,” said Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement organizer Njeri Shakur.
Shakur told WW that the Nanon Williams Support Association has reestablished itself and supporters are ready to again go to the public with Williams’ case. “A special investigator hired by the City was paid a lot of money to tell us what is wrong with the system. But the mayor, police chief and the DA won’t follow his recommendation to hire a special monitor,” stated Shakur.
A new report released this week by Amnesty International, “Execution by lethal injection—a quarter century of state poisoning,” calls on medical professionals to refuse to participate in executions and details ongoing concerns about current lethal injection protocols that could result in inmates feeling excruciating pain during their executions.
“Governments are putting doctors and nurses in an impossible position by asking them to do something that goes against their ethical oath. ... Medical professionals are trained to work for patients’ well being, not to participate in executions ordered by the state. The simplest way of resolving the ethical dilemmas posed by using doctors and nurses to kill is by abolishing the death penalty,” said Jim Welsh, Amnesty International’s Health and Human Rights coordinator.
This week there is a rally in Bastrop, Texas, on Oct. 13, in support of Rodney Reed, an innocent man on Texas death row, from Bastrop, just outside of Austin, sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
All out for Oct. 27!
On the same day in Houston, the outreach committee of the 8th Annual March to Stop Executions will present Old School Meets New School: Bridging the Gap from Freedom Riders to Freedom Writers; Topic the Death Penalty. Hosts and moderators will be noted television personality Darian Ward, spoken word artist Brother Equality and DJ and radio host Brother Zin.
On Oct. 20, a “Pre-march Fundraiser and Kenneth Foster Victory Celebration” will be hosted by the 8th Annual March to Stop Executions at SHAPE Community Center from 7 p.m. until midnight.
The march will take place on Oct. 27, beginning at Emancipation Park in Third Ward of Houston across the street from where the Black Panther Party headquarters once stood. The theme of this year’s march is “Celebrating our Victories, Remembering our Losses, Fighting for Abolition.”
The guest of honor will be Clarence Brandley, who was freed from death row after ten years by a struggle waged by the Houston community. Also, the family of Brandley as well as the family of Kenneth Foster will be honored. The march will be led by death row families, including those of Frances Newton, Shaka Sankofa and Joseph Nichols, families that lost their loved ones to the executioner’s needle.
International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Houston City Councilwoman Ada Edwards and Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” are among many who have endorsed the march.
Momentum against the death penalty is growing. The movement against injustice is building as witnessed by the past summer’s campaign to save the life of Kenneth Foster. As Foster’s friend and supporter Claire Dube said, “We made the impossible possible. We saved Kenneth.” Abolitionists around Texas are aiming for another impossibility—abolition of the death penalty not just for those who can prove their innocence in a courtroom but for all the poor and oppressed who are systematically targeted for state repression.
Go to www.marchtoendexecution.org to endorse or contribute to the march.
The writer is a Houston organizer with Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement.