Friday, 21 August 2009

Here's a good case for killing the death penalty

Opponents of the death penalty have reason for hope this week. Two high-profile cases are exposing the sick, barbaric folly of execution in America.

When the U.S. resumed executions in 1977, only 16 nations had abolished the death penalty; the number has since grown to 92. Five nations now carry out more than 90% of the world's executions: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China - and the United States.

We're in pretty grim company.

But this week, America took a step toward evolving in the direction of the civilized world.

In Georgia, a man on Death Row got an extremely rare ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

And in Texas, a high-ranking judge is herself on trial - prosecuted for misconduct after callously refusing to hear the eleventh-hour appeal of a prisoner who was about to be executed.

The latest development in the Georgia case of Troy Anthony Davis is awe-inspiring.

For the first time in 50 years, the justices ordered a federal court to reopen a state murder case - even after a long line of appeals - and hear newly discovered evidence that might exonerate Davis.

As I've written in columns since 2007, the evidence of Davis' innocence is overwhelming. He was convicted in 1991 of the point-blank shooting of a Savannah police officer in a case with scant evidence: There was no murder weapon found, no confession, no fingerprints or other physical evidence.

Davis was sent to Death Row on the strength of nine witnesses. Seven have since recanted in sworn statements, with many claiming police coercion. An eighth witness first told cops he didn't know who the killer was, then "remembered" it was Davis two years later.

And the ninth witness, who originally pointed the finger at Davis, may be the real killer. Three new witnesses now say he was the shooter. (Details about the case are at

It took marches, rallies, media coverage and an active international movement and appeals from well-known people - including former FBI Director Williams Sessions, ex-Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict - to get the high court to act.

The Supreme Court ruling signals that actual innocence counts for something in a land where so many scream for blood.

Another encouraging scene is unfolding in Texas, where Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, yesterday took the witness stand in her own defense.

Keller has been charged with misconduct by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct and could be kicked off the bench for her actions on the night in 2007 that the state executed Michael Wayne Richard, a rapist and murderer.

On the day Richard was scheduled to be killed, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a halt to executions in Kentucky based on a claim that lethal injections might be painful and therefore an unconstitutionally cruel form of punishment.

Richard's lawyers, frantically attempting to stay his execution based on the ruling in the Kentucky case, called Keller's aides shortly before the court's closing time, begging them to keep the court open for 15 to 30 minutes - long enough to allow papers to be filed.

At 4:45 p.m., the request was passed to Keller, who presides over the very last stop for criminal defendants in the Lone Star State.

"We close at 5," she said. Richard was executed at 8:23 that evening. And on the stand yesterday, Keller said that, if faced with the same situation, she'd slam shut the doors of the courthouse again.

That stiff-necked indifference to fairness and justice make Keller - "Killer Keller" to her critics - a poster child, along with Davis, for why we must end the death penalty.

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