Friday, 20 March 2009

Death penalty rift in states continues

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Death penalty rift in states continues
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer

Gov. Bill Richardson’s decision Wednesday (March 18) to repeal New Mexico’s death penalty and replace it with a maximum sentence of life without parole is being hailed by supporters as a major victory in the decades-old debate over state-sanctioned executions.
But the decision—which follows New Jersey’s repeal in 2007 and brings to 15 the number of states that do not execute inmates—also underscores the nuanced modern landscape of capital punishment.

Click on link to read ths story :

Campaign to End the Death Penalty Celebrates Abolition in New Mexico

Campaign to End the Death Penalty Celebrates Abolition in New Mexico

Governor Bill Richardson did the right thing when he signed House Bill 285, which outlawed the death penalty. New Mexico now becomes the 15th state without the death penalty, and the second state to abolish it legislatively, after New Jersey in 2007. Activists who worked for repeal are celebrating their hard-fought victory, which took thousands of people making phone calls, writing letters and attending rallies. As Christy Armell from the Albuquerque chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty says, “it’s a great time for all New Mexicans, but also for this country, as we are setting an example that there is no need for the death penalty and it is not good public policy. New Mexico has spoken loud and clear and we have chosen to become part of the 14 other states that understand respect for life means every life. I am proud to be a New Mexican today.”

Passage of the legislation represents a growing recognition that the death penalty is too flawed to fix and has no place in a just society. As Governor Richardson said, “From an international human rights perspective, there is no reason the United States should be behind the rest of the world on this issue. Many of the countries that continue to support and use the death penalty are also the most repressive nations in the world. That's not something to be proud of.”

Richardson also recognized that race is a persistent factor in who gets the death penalty, and that all too often it condemns the innocent to die. He spoke for a growing number of people, both in New Mexico and around the country when he said, “I don’t have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime. If the State is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong.”

The death penalty in New Mexico and around the country did get it wrong. Four men, Thomas Gladich, Richard Greer, Ronald Keine and Clarence Smith, were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit and later exonerated, while only one person has been executed there since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977. Nationally, 130 people have been exonerated from death rows. Passage of this legislation is a victory for future New Mexicans who will no longer risk death for crimes they did not commit. We urge other states around the country, some of which also are considering abolition legislation, to follow in the footsteps of New Mexico and get rid of their own death penalty systems.

Our fight in New Mexico, however, is not over. House Bill 285 was not retroactive, and the two men on death row, Robert Fry and Timothy Allen, still face execution. We are disappointed that Governor Richardson has stated that he will not commute their sentences, and we call on him to reconsider, as any use of the death penalty, as he himself implied, violates the standards of a society that values human rights.

It is also the case that HB 285 introduced a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence in a state where it did not previously exist. Just as it does with the death penalty, the United States lags behind much of the world in its use of LWOP, another brutal, inhumane sentence that former California death row prisoner Stanley Tookie Williams, who was executed in 2005 despite his remarkable personal transformation, called “slow death in a cage”. The struggle for justice continues, in New Mexico and around the country.

Call (773)955-4841 for more information about the Campaign to End the Death Penalty
To donate, visit


Immediate Release
March 19, 2009

Leila McDowell
202/463-2940 ext. 1005


New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and the state legislature made the right decision in repealing capital punishment. The governor’s inspirational leadership is an exemplar of the intersection of morality and wise governance that serves our nation well.

We congratulate our New Mexico State Conference and Sante Fe Branch that worked tirelessly to support the repeal. Their efforts helped result in a strong bipartisan vote in the New Mexico legislature reflecting a growing consensus that the death penalty has failed the people of New Mexico. They are joining millions of citizens nationwide who understand that capital punishment risks executing the innocent, is unfairly applied, fails victims’ families and law enforcement and wastes scarce taxpayer dollars .

Coretta Scott King said, "As one whose husband and mother-in-law have both died as the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by legalized murder."

Coretta’s prescient quote presaged a growing chorus of deep concern about the death penalty across the country.

In this time of fiscal crisis, it is more important than ever to make smart choices when it comes to meeting the needs of our citizens. By repealing the death penalty, New Mexico can now focus resources on the important issue of providing tangible assistance to the families of murder victims.. Additional measures making their way through the legislature will enable New Mexico to use the savings gained from ending the death penalty to provide a reparation award to children of murder victims, provide services and programs to murder victims’ families, create a murder victim family services fund and require employers to provide leave to crime victims to attend judicial proceedings.

Governor Bill Richardson and the state legislature are to be applauded for their moral courage. In doing so, they light a candle for smart crime policies for our entire nation. We sincerely hope that their enlightened leadership will clear a path for other states to follow.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP--the nation's oldest, largest and most widely-recognized grassroots–based civil rights organization—is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Its more than half-million members and supporters throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Gov. Richardson to Decide Future of Death Penalty in NM

On Friday, March 13, the New Mexico Senate voted 24-18 to repeal the death penalty in that state. This action follows a corresponding vote in the New Mexico House of Representatives in February.So the bill is on its way to Governor Bill Richardson's desk. The future of the death penalty in New Mexico is now in his hands.And, unfortunately, he appears to be on the fence.After yesterday's legislative victory, Richardson issued the following statement on the subject:

"This is an extremely difficult issue that deserved the serious and thoughtful debate it received in the Legislature. I have met with many people and will continue to consider all sides of the issue before making a decision."The governor has three days from the time he receives the bill until he must take action (excluding Sunday).

I urge everyone interested in this important issue to contact Governor Richardson today and ask him to support the death penalty repeal.

You can call the governor's office at 505-476-2200 or email him through his website at

If you are undecided on the issue, like Richardson, or if you want to refer to some talking points while contacting his office, here is a summary of the reasons why I personally oppose the death penalty:

The death penalty is applied unevenly and unfairly, and minorities are victimized in the process. Studies in several states have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor.

For example, a 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. Where is the justice here?

In addition to its biased application, the death penalty is demonstrably not a deterrent, and is irreversible, which is a problem given so many cases of death row inmates who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. (How many other innocent persons weren't lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.)

On a more philosophical note, Amnesty International describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."These are some of the reasons why most European nations have abolished the death penalty.

It has been more than a year since New Jersey abolished the death penalty, and prosecutors -- yes, prosecutors! -- in that state have found no problems with the new system, which replaced execution with life in prison without parole.

Ergo, I see no good reason to retain the death penalty, but a lot of good reasons to abolish it.Fingers crossed for New Mexico.

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)

Friday, 13 March 2009

Capital punishment in New Mexico

The New Mexican
3/12/2009 - 3/13/09

Here's a list of all legal executions performed by the New Mexico Department of Corrections (between 1913 and 1929 all executions there were the responsibilities of individual county sheriffs):

July 21, 1933: Two men die in the state's new electric chair. The first was Thomas Johnson, a black man convicted of killing 18-year-old Angelina Jaramillo, who had been raped and killed in her Santa Fe home. Through the years some have claimed that Johnson was framed by authorities. Author Ralph Melnick wrote a book called Justice Betrayed (2002) in which he argues Johnson was innocent and the guilty party was part of the victim's family. Melnick points out that Johnson's race constantly was made an issue in The New Mexican at the time, with Johnson frequently referred to as "The Negro" in this newspaper's stories and headlines. The paper even ran an editorial saying the killing was evidence that black people should not be permitted to live in Santa Fe.

Santiago Garduño was executed the same day as Johnson. He was convicted of murdering his stepson. Garduño gave the boy a drink of whiskey laced with strychnine.

May 10, 1946: Pedro Talamonte, who was convicted in Gallup of murdering his 25-year-old wife.

June 13, 1947: Louis Young was the second black man accused of killing a white or Hispanic Santa Fe woman to die in the electric chair. Young was a prison inmate who worked as personal handyman at the prison warden's home which was near the victim's house. Young confessed to the crime following a late-night interrogation in his cell by authorities, though he soon recanted, saying the confession was forced. Despite efforts by civil rights organizations throughout the state, Young was executed.

Feb. 19, 1954: Arthur Johnson, who was convicted of murdering and robbing a Hobbs man.

Oct. 29, 1954: Frederick Heisler, who was convicted of murdering a man who had given him a ride hitchhiking.

Feb. 24, 1956: James Larry Upton, who also was convicted of murdering a man who had given him a ride hitchhiking. According to newspaper accounts, several spectators at his electrocution were drunk and rowdy.

Jan. 8, 1960: David Cooper Nelson, who was the first and only New Mexico inmate to die in the gas chamber. He was the third New Mexico inmate to be executed after being convicted of murdering a man who had given him a ride hitchhiking.

Nov. 6, 2001: Terry Clark was convicted of the 1986 murder of 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore in Artesia. Clark voluntarily halted his appeals process. He, so far, is the only New Mexico to be executed by lethal injection.

Death-penalty debate: Decades of doubt

Death-penalty debate: Decades of doubt

Photo: Nov. 6, 2001: Maria Santelli, left, and Rian Haney pause for a moment of silence after Terry Clark is executed. Clark, who was convicted of the 1986 murder of 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore in Artesia, voluntarily halted his appeals process. He is the only person in New Mexico to be executed by lethal injection.

After centuries of commuted sentences and controversy, state closer than ever to repealing capital punishment

Steve Terrell The New Mexican

3/12/2009 - 3/11/09
New Mexico for centuries has been reluctant to execute criminals, even though the state has had some form of capital punishment law on its books for virtually all of its history since the Spanish colonial era.
Even during the blazing days of the Wild West, judges routinely requested Territorial governors commute death sentences. And governors frequently complied. Some governors even spoke out against the death penalty.
Why the reluctance? Some speculate it's the influence of the Catholic Church. At least one historian says it might have roots in a series of executions in 1847 by the U.S. government of native New Mexicans who rebelled against the American occupation of New Mexico.
History might be in the making. The state Senate appears to be closer to codifying that reluctance by repealing the death penalty than it has been in decades, and Gov. Bill Richardson, who in the past has supported the death penalty, recently has dropped hints that he could sign the abolition. At a news conference this week, Richardson stressed he had not made up his mind on the issue and would be talking to advocates on both sides if House Bill 285 is passed by the Senate.
The bill, which passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week — a hurdle that identical bills have failed to clear in recent years — is expected to go to the Senate floor for a vote as early as today.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque — who has been carrying capital punishment repeal bills for the past decade — would eliminate the sentence of lethal injection, replacing it with life in prison without possibility of parole. Currently a life sentence means the convict isn't eligible for parole for at least 30 years.
Here is a look at the history of the death penalty in New Mexico.
A tradition of reluctance: In this year's capital punishment debate in the Legislature, both sides have referred to the fact that in the past 49 years only one person — child rapist and killer Terry Clark — has been executed. And Clark, who was lethally injected in November 2001, voluntarily ended his appeals process, which had gone on for 15 years.
Death penalty opponents use this to illustrate that the death penalty is not a useful law-enforcement tool and that keeping the law on the books only wastes money on lengthy appeals.
Supporters say the fact there are so few executions only proves that the state has been properly cautious in applying capital punishment.
But it's not just in recent years that New Mexico has appeared reluctant to impose the ultimate sentence.
Former State Historian Robert J. Torrez, author of a 2008 book called Myth of the Hanging Tree: Stories of Crime and Punishment in Territorial New Mexico, said in an interview this week that New Mexico juries, an sometimes even judges, never have been anxious to sentence criminals to death.
"There were only two capital cases in the Spanish colonial period," Torrez said. Each of those cases involved two defendants, which means there were only four executions during that time, Torrez said. One case was in 1779, the other in 1809.
It's likely the influence of the Catholic Church had something to do with those low numbers. Allan Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that after the Inquisition in the mid-1500s, the Church "pulled back and looked at its theology." In the 1700s and 1800s, the church doctrine was that if a criminal could be rendered harmless to society, he shouldn't be executed, Sanchez said.
During the period when New Mexico was under the Mexican government, 1821-1846, there are no records of any executions being carried out, Torrez said. He agreed it's possible that some records from those years have been lost.
During New Mexico's Territorial period, 1846-1913, there were a total of 51 legal executions by state and local authorities, all by hanging. According to Torrez's book, there were about 100 convictions in state courts during that time for first-degree murder, which at the time carried an automatic death sentence.
Some died in prison and a few escaped. But nearly half who weren't executed were pardoned or had their sentences commuted by the territorial governor.
In many cases, Torrez points out, territorial judges themselves — who had no say in the sentence because of the automatic death penalty — requested clemency from the governor because of some extenuating circumstance.
Torrez's execution figures in the Territorial days do not include the 20 New Mexicans who were hung after being convicted by military courts for an insurrection, sometimes called "The Taos Rebellion." This revolt against the American occupation took place in 1847.
These executions, which Torrez calls "the harsh introduction of American jurisprudence," might explain why juries and even judges were not so gung-ho on capital punishment, the historian said. He notes that the counties that bore the brunt of the retaliation by American forces — Taos, Rio Arriba and Mora — had some of the lowest rates of convictions in capital cases during Territorial days.
Some territorial governors spoke out against the death penalty, Torrez wrote. Although he signed the death warrant for the last man hanged during the Territorial period, Gov. George Curry told lawmakers that capital punishment was not a deterrent to crime and that an execution "involves an element of revenge repugnant to civilization." And in 1851, Gov. James Calhoun told the Legislature, "Humanity shudders at the thought of capital punishment."
Electric chairs, gas chambers:
In the early years of statehood, from 1913 to 1923, there were 20 legal executions. Twelve of those hanged were Mexican nationals.
In 1929, the Legislature passed a law making it the state's responsibility, rather than individual county sheriffs, to carry out executions. The method of execution was changed from hanging to electrocution.
The state's electric chair was first used in 1933. It would be used a total of seven times between that year and 1956. Reporter and author Tony Hillerman, who died last year, covered the 1956 execution of James Larry Upton for The New Mexican.
"I did a sidebar for the paper on the kind of Roman holiday they made out of this execution," Hillerman said in a 1999 interview with The New Mexican. "They had it in a big room, in the old penitentiary near downtown. They had about 110 drunk sheriff's posse types in there celebrating. It was really a grisly kind of thing. The politicos controlled the tickets. It was kind of like getting tickets to a Lobos-Utah game."
Upton had been composed and ready to die, Hillerman recalled. "Then he sees this great mob of drunken louts gaping at him like a circus." The grim spectacle of the execution apparently prompted the Legislature to passed a law limiting witnesses for executions.
By 1960, the method of execution changed again. Gas chambers were now in vogue around the country. But only one person would be executed that way in this state, David Nelson Cooper, who was executed in January 1960
Ten years later, the Legislature passed a law eliminating the death penalty for any crime except the murder of a law enforcement officer. Gov. David Cargo commuted the sentences of the inmates on death row. Cargo said in a 1998 interview with The New Mexican that there were "two or three" inmates whose sentences were commuted.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws, saying capital punishment was administered unevenly by the various states and thus was cruel and unusual punishment.
The next year, New Mexico's Legislature overwhelmingly passed a law similar to the old Territorial law, making execution automatic for anyone convicted of first-degree murder.
Although nobody was executed in New Mexico under that law before it was struck down as unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, four members of a California motorcycle gang during that period were sentenced to death for the murder of a man in Albuquerque. The four eventually were exonerated and released after the chief witness admitted she lied on the witness stand and the true killer confessed and led authorities to the murder weapon.
Capital punishment today:
In 1979, the Legislature passed the current law. Only those convicted of first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances are eligible for execution.
Those circumstances include: killing a law-enforcement officer or a prison guard, killing a fellow inmate, killing while trying to escape from incarceration, murder for hire, murdering to prevent a witness of a crime from testifying and murder while trying to commit rape, kidnapping or child molestation.
Death row began to fill up again. The last time a Santa Fe jury imposed a death sentence was in 1983, when Ricky Garcia, a prison inmate, was sentenced to die for killing a guard.
But in November 1986, outgoing Gov. Toney Anaya surprised the nation by commuting the sentences of Garcia and the other four killers awaiting execution. Although he was blasted by many in the state, Anaya on Wednesday said he feels good about the fact the current repeal bill should at least come close to passing.
"Sometimes a good idea takes a long time," he said. In 1999, Clark, who was sentenced to death shortly after Anaya left office, first said he wanted to drop his appeals. He changed his mind several months later, but by 2001 he made the request again and this time a judge agreed with his wishes.
On Nov. 6, 2001, hired executioners from the Texas Corrections Department injected Clark with lethal doses of drugs purchased through the state Health Department.
Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or
Read his political blog at

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Mixed Opinions of a Judge Accused of Misconduct

Mixed Opinions of a Judge Accused of Misconduct

A refusal to accept a last-minute appeal in a death penalty case could end the career of a top judge in Texas.


Published: March 7, 2009

DALLAS — If Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of Texas’ highest criminal court, has ever doubted her judgment, she has not shown it.

Elena Grothe/Austin American-Statesman
Sharon Keller, who was first elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994, is now its presiding judge.

In 1998, Judge Keller wrote the opinion rejecting a new trial for Roy Criner, a mentally retarded man convicted of rape and murder, even though DNA tests after his trial showed that it was not his semen in the victim.

“We can’t give new trials to everyone who establishes, after conviction, that they might be innocent,” she later told the television news program “Frontline.” “We would have no finality in the criminal justice system, and finality is important.”

Gov. George W. Bush eventually pardoned Mr. Criner.

To Judge Keller’s detractors, the Criner decision highlighted what they see as her strong and habitual bias for the prosecution. Many Texas defense lawyers describe her as a law-and-order zealot who rejects most appeals out of hand. Her defenders argue that she has been fair and impartial, though unabashedly conservative, in her interpretation of the law.

Now, Judge Keller is again defending her actions, this time in a judicial misconduct case that could end her career.

Seventeen months ago, lawyers for a man facing execution sought extra time to file a last-minute appeal. Judge Keller refused to delay the closing of her clerk’s office past 5 p.m., even though late filings are common on the day of a scheduled execution. The man, Michael Richard, was put to death by lethal injection a few hours later.

Based on that case, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct last month charged Judge Keller with incompetence, violating her duties and casting public discredit on the judiciary.

Judge Keller, who was first elected chief judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2000, faces a public trial and could be forced off the bench.

Her lawyer insists that she did nothing wrong and that she was being blamed for the mistakes of the defendant’s lawyers and court staff.

Judge Keller, whose current term runs through 2012, rarely grants interviews and did not respond to requests for comment. But others are taking up her cause.

“Sharon is a hard worker,” said Dan Hagood, a defense lawyer and longtime friend from Dallas who served as her campaign treasurer when she ran for election to the court in 1994. “She never complains, never explains.”

Judge Keller, 55, has always kept her own counsel; her colleagues at the court have given her the nickname Mother Superior because of her reserved and diligent demeanor and her devout Roman Catholic faith.

Friends say she is witty and well read, an engaging conversationalist in one-on-one encounters over cocktails, but the quietest one at the table at weekly card games with fellow alumni of Rice University.

What some consider rigid heartlessness in her legal opinions, others admire as calm confidence and the strength of her convictions.

“She doesn’t have a callous bone in her body,” said Knox Fitzpatrick, a lawyer who works with her on the state’s Task Force on Indigent Defense. “She has the highest standard of ethics; she is the ideal judge. Emotions have nothing to do with it: She follows the law, she looks at the facts and makes a dispassionate opinion.”

But Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, described Judge Keller as “unhearing.”

“She’s just totally shut down on capital cases,” Mr. Harrington said. “It’s one thing to take a hard line in terms of punishments and convictions. It’s another to not be receptive to the idea that people are entitled to an appeal, that there may be error in this system.”

Supporters point out, however, that under Judge Keller’s leadership as chairwoman of the task force, Texas has expanded the number of public defender offices to 15, from 7; increased the number of people represented by about 38 percent; and raised state spending on the program to almost $60 million, from $19 million.

People also say they admire how Judge Keller has raised her son as a single mother and how close she is with her extended family, which financed the bulk of her campaign to join the court.
Judge Keller had graduated from Rice with a degree in philosophy when her father, the founder of a Dallas chain of hamburger and beer drive-ins, encouraged her to study law, which she did at Southern Methodist University. After a brief stint as a defense lawyer, she joined the Dallas district attorney’s office in 1987 and became a star of the appellate division.

In 1994, she campaigned for an opening on the Court of Criminal Appeals, describing herself as “pro-prosecution.” She was elected along with a number of conservative Republican female justices, the same year that Mr. Bush ousted Ann Richards as governor.

Within a few years, the nine-member Court of Criminal Appeals had flipped from being all Democrats to all Republicans. And the rate of reversal of death penalty cases plummeted.
“I think she epitomizes what a judge should be: a fair and impartial umpire,” said Mr. Hagood, the Dallas defense lawyer.

But Charlie Baird, a Democrat who was voted off the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1998, said bitterly that Judge Keller remained true to her campaign promises.

“It was always one-sided to her, and her side was the state always wins,” Mr. Baird said. “She was always advancing a purely political agenda on behalf of far-right Republicans.”

Now Judge Keller is being forced to explain her actions of Sept. 25, 2007, the day Mr. Richard was executed.

According to the judicial conduct commission’s notice of formal proceedings, Mr. Richard, who had confessed to the rape and fatal shooting of a nurse in 1986, was scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. Earlier that day, his lawyers were busy drafting filings based on his mental capacity when the United States Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments considering the constitutionality of lethal injections.

Mr. Richard’s lawyers switched tactics to take advantage of the development.

As 5 p.m. approached, lawyers with the nonprofit Texas Defender Service were having computer problems. They called the court and asked for a few extra minutes to file.
Judge Keller had gone home early that afternoon to meet a repairman, and the court counsel, Edward Marty, reached her by telephone to ask if they could keep the clerk’s office open.

A week later, in an interview with The Austin American-Statesman, Judge Keller offered her account of what had happened.

“I got a phone call shortly before 5 and was told the defendant had asked us to stay open,” she said. “They did not tell us they had computer failure. And given the late request, and with no reason given, I just said, ‘We close at 5.’ I didn’t really think of it as a decision so much as a statement.”

Another judge was waiting at the court for after-hours pleadings in the case but was never notified of the communications from the defense, as required by court policy, the commission concluded. Mr. Richard was executed at 8:20 p.m.

Judge Keller’s lawyer, Charles L. Babcock, said that many people shared in a failure of communication that day and that her role was minor.

“Hindsight being 20/20, I think Judge Keller is certainly sorry that the system broke down,” Mr. Babcock said. “As far as her overt actions, I don’t think she feels she did anything wrong. Nor do I.”

A version of this article appeared in print on March 8, 2009, on page A14 of the New York edition.