Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Supreme Court Gets Hamilton County Death Penalty Case

Court To Determine If Disabled Standard Should Apply In 1992 Case


updated 5:50 p.m. ET, Fri., April 24, 2009

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday in a 1992 murder case from Hamilton County.

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray is asking the court to reverse a lower court decision that set aside the death sentence imposed on Michael Bies for his murder of a 10 year-old Cincinnati boy.

Bies and an accomplice lured Aaron Raines into an abandoned building and bludgeoned him to death. A Hamilton County jury convicted Bies of aggravated murder, attempted rape and kidnapping, and further recommended a sentence of death. The Ohio Supreme Court had affirmed the conviction and death sentence in 1996.

In a 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution prohibits the execution of mentally retarded defendants. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit later ordered that Bies' death sentence be set aside because the Ohio Supreme Court briefly mentioned the mental retardation issue in one of its earlier opinions.

Cordray said he maintains that the Ohio Supreme Court never determined that Bies is mentally retarded under the Atkins standards.

If Cordray prevails, the court will return the case to the Hamilton County courts, which will conduct a hearing, take evidence and issue a finding on Bies' mental capacity.

"Developmentally disabled individuals cannot be executed, period," said Cordray in an news release. "However, it is important that the proper procedures be followed to make that determination for any death row inmate. We believe the federal courts should have allowed the Ohio state courts to determine this issue anew after Atkins was decided and resulted in a major change in the law. Should we prevail, I have every confidence that Mr. Bies will receive a full and fair hearing in the Ohio courts."

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Ottawa 'disappointed' with beheading sentence

Tiffany Crawford, Canwest News Service

OTTAWA -- The Harper government said Thursday it was ‘deeply disappointed' by news a Saudi court had upheld the death by beheading sentence of a Canadian man who was convicted in the 2007 death of another man.

"We are deeply disappointed at the reports that a Saudi court has upheld its decision to sentence Mohamed Kohail to death," said Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. "Canada continues to express its concern for a fair and transparent review of the wording and the sentence."

The decision by the Jidda General Court sends the matter back to the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council -- essentially an appeal court -- for a final ruling.

Mr. Obhrai told the House of Commons that Cannon has requested that Canadian officials review the final court decision when it is issued.

Aubrey Harris, who works on a campaign to abolish the death penalty for Amnesty International, said there could still be a positive outcome for Kohail in the Supreme Judicial Council.

"The lower court is refusing to change its decision," he said, "but what it means is (Kohail's) case must now go back before the . . . council, which had originally felt that his case should be overturned. So it is a matter of waiting and seeing."

Mr. Harris said it's unclear if the delay will allow for more evidence to be presented in court.

There was no word on developments regarding Kohail's younger brother, Sultan, who was charged in the same incident.

Sultan was originally tried in Saudi youth court and sentenced to 200 lashes -- but now faces trial in adult court, where he could also face a death sentence.

Liberal MP Dan McTeague, the party's consular affairs critic, argues there's evidence to suggest Kohail's case was one of self-defence and he does not deserve a death sentence, which would be carried out by sword.

Kohail, a 23-year-old Montrealer, was living temporarily in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, when he got involved in a schoolyard brawl in January 2007. The fight resulted in the death of an 18-year-old man.

The Kohail family maintains evidence -- not permitted to be entered at the separate trials of their two sons -- suggests the two were trying to escape from a mob and did not cause the injuries that led to the Syrian man's death.

"It hasn't been a fair run," Mr. Harris said. "The court system is undergoing modifications and a number of them haven't taken effect yet, but [the council] may have the power to overturn lower court rulings."

Mr. Harris said the court's final decision will likely be made "in a few weeks," and he hoped the Canadian government would push for Kohail's release.

"The Canadian government must intervene," he said.

Mr. McTeague also has concerns about how the court decision was made without any public written documentation.

"This, in itself, is significant because it was done, in my view, in a very perfunctory way . . . and said, ‘ya, too bad, we're sticking with the decision.'"

The Kohails settled in Montreal after emigrating to Canada in 2000 and became Canadian citizens in 2005.

With files from the Montreal Gazette

Steve Goble's It's Debatable: Nothing sensible about the death penalty

News Journal

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray thinks the appeals process for death penalty cases is far too lengthy.

I can solve the problem in four words: Dump the death penalty.

The long appellate process sometimes defeats the possibility of justice being served, Cordray said last week. Long waits make it difficult when, after a dozen years in the courts, a retrial involving a new prosecutor and new police officials is required, he said.

"If it does lead to a retrial, it's very difficult to feel that fair justice can be achieved on a redo because so much changes over time, particularly in presenting factual evidence to juries," he said.

It is interesting Cordray mentioned things that change over time. One thing that often changes is the quality of forensic evidence. Better science and investigative techniques come along, and sometimes show the wrong people are on death row.

That, to me, is reason enough to dump the death penalty. If Cordray thinks redoing a trial is difficult, he should try redoing an execution.

On a gut level, I think some crimes merit death. Some evils make me lose all sympathy for the perpetrators.

The problem, of course, is making certain we get the right perpetrators. Too often, we don't.

The American Civil Liberties Union reports that since 1973, 123 people nationwide have been released from death row because they were innocent. Seven others were executed even though they probably were innocent. A study reported in the Stanford Law Review documents 350 capital convictions in which it was later proven the convict had not committed the crime. Of those, 25 people were executed. Fifty-five of the 350 cases took place in the 1970s, and another 20 between 1980 and 1985.

In many instances, DNA evidence is what sets innocent men free. Such evidence is relatively new -- it wasn't available when many people were wrongly convicted. A lengthy appeals process saved their lives, by keeping them alive until forensic evidence could prove their innocence.

The idea that innocent people might be run over while society seeks justice is appalling. When the issue is whether to take someone's life, "correct most of the time" is a worthless standard.

Today, about 3,350 people are on death row nationwide, the ACLU reports. Almost all are poor, many are mentally disabled, more than 40 percent are black and a disproportionate number are American Indian, Latino or Asian.

Ohio has 175 inmates on death row, Cordray's office reported last week. About half are black.

Some of these condemned may be innocent. How many are we willing to sacrifice?

Some argue capital punishment deters crime. Studies disagree with that claim. States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime or murder rates than states without. States that abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in crime or murder rates, the ACLU says.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit resource center in Washington, D.C., cites a national survey showing most police chiefs say the death penalty doesn't reduce homicides, because murderers don't think about possible punishments.

Think about most of those who commit crimes that could land them on death row. They're not our best and brightest. They often have limited ability to think beyond the next five minutes. They are in a rage, or hopped up on drugs, or desperate for their next fix. The last thing they are likely to consider is the consequences of their actions.

One more data point: A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of statistics from 2001 to 2007 shows Southern states, which execute far more inmates than the rest of the U.S. combined, have consistently had the highest per capita murder rates.

Some deterrent.

The ACLU cites numerous studies that show racial disparities in how the death penalty is applied. People who kill whites are more likely to receive a death sentence than those who kill minorities. Blacks who kill whites have the greatest chance of receiving a death sentence.

Cordray has said the appeals process properly results in second looks at some cases. Good for him. The next step is for him to realize that such instances are reason enough to flush the death penalty. He should use his office to promote such change.

According to Cordray's report, there are 21 inmates on Ohio's death row whose appeals are all but exhausted. Are any of them innocent? Maybe not, but I wonder. Is it worth the risk of executing them? No.

Evidence shows we have an imperfect judicial system, run by fallible human beings. Our courts get a lot of things right, and they have a lot of built-in protections to help assure they do. Still, mistakes are made. The merciful, sensible, moral thing to do is to not put convicts to death in the first place. We should work toward that.

In the meantime, let's not start erasing vital protections just to save time and fuss.

We're talking about human life here. It's worth the time and fuss.

Steve Goble is a copy editor and page designer for the News Journal. Look for his column, "It's Debatable," in the Community Conversation section every Sunday, and visit his blog on our Web site. E-mail him at sgoble@nncogannett.com.


What if They Gave an Execution and No One Came?

The state of Washington now finds itself without an executioner, following the abrupt resignation of its lethal injection team. The four volunteers who administer lethal injections to death-row inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla quit their positions because of fears their identities might become revealed as a result of a judicial ruling. A state judge, Chris Wickham, wanted to review the four individuals’ credentials, qualifications and experience in administering lethal drugs as part of a lawsuit filed by death-row inmates over the constitutionality of the execution procedure. The judge would not have revealed any information that would have personally identified the team members, but apparently the individuals were still worried about having their records held under seal at the state attorney general’s office.

Currently, there are no executions scheduled in Washington, which gives officials time to assemble a new team. The state Department of Corrections has been in touch with officials in other states in case Washington has to “borrow” a lethal-injection team. Washington has not had an execution since August 2001.
-Noel Brinkerhoff

Friday, 3 April 2009

State's execution team resigns, fearing identities would be reveale,"

From the Blog Standdown :

Friday, April 03, 2009
More from Washington State

is today's Seattle Times report.

Four people who have volunteered to administer lethal injections to death-row inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla quit their positions this week, apparently worried that their identities could become public as a result of an ongoing court case to decide whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The four resigned Tuesday, which was the deadline Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham had set for the team's records -- detailing the members' credentials, qualifications and experience in administering lethal drugs -- to be submitted for his review.
The state is now without a lethal-injection team, and it's unclear what effect the resignations will have on the court proceedings.

Death-row inmate Darold Stenson, who was sentenced to die in 1994 for killing his wife and business partner, filed his lawsuit last year, claiming that lethal injection can result in excruciating pain if not administered correctly.

Two other death-row inmates, Jonathan Gentry and Cal Coburn Brown, later filed similar suits, and the three cases were consolidated. Gentry was convicted in 1991 in Kitsap County of fatally bludgeoning 12-year-old Cassie Holden near Bremerton in 1981. Brown raped, tortured and murdered Holly Washa, 22, of Burien, in 1991.

The resignations are "a surprising and disturbing development," said Scott Englehard, the attorney representing Gentry. "This issue has nothing to do with guarding their identities."
Englehard said the plaintiff's attorneys already agreed that no identifying information related to the team members would be disclosed. The records were to be reviewed in camera, a time-honored legal tradition in which only a judge sees sensitive and confidential documents and then decides what information attorneys will be privy to, he said.

His client and the other plaintiffs have a right to inquire about the team's "experience or qualifications to properly carry out a lethal-injection execution," Englehard said.
Dan Sytman, a spokesman for State Attorney General Rob McKenna, confirmed the resignations and said the four were worried about Wickham's order to have their records held under seal inside the state attorney general's office. Typically, those records are kept in the office of the superintendent at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, he said.

The team members' identities are a closely guarded secret, known only to a handful of people, said Eldon Vail, secretary of the state DOC. He said even he doesn't know who's on the team.
"Historically and in the future, we'll do everything we can to guard their identities," Vail said. "It's not easy finding individuals" willing to serve on the lethal-injection team, and anyone who participates in an execution does so voluntarily.

There are currently no scheduled executions, "so we have some time" to figure out how to go about assembling a new team, Vail said. He's been in touch with other officials in other states, who have agreed to send a lethal-injection team to Washington if needed, but only if members' names are kept confidential.

AP reports, "Washington state's execution team resigns," via Google News.
Four people designated to administer lethal injections to death-row inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary have resigned, apparently worried that their identities could become public in court.

The Seattle Times reported Thursday that the four resigned Tuesday for fear that their names would become known as a result of litigation on whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Tuesday was the deadline to give Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham records detailing the execution team members' credentials, qualifications and experience in administering lethal drugs.

Darold Stenson, sentenced to die in 1994 for killing his wife and business partner, filed a lawsuit last year contending that lethal injection can result in excruciating pain if not administered correctly. Stenson's execution date had been set for September before being postponed because of the court case.

Two other death-row inmates, Jonathan Gentry and Cal Coburn Brown, have filed similar lawsuits and the cases were consolidated before Wickham.

In December the state prison system's chief physician, Dr. Marc Stern, resigned because he said preparing for an execution would violate medical ethics.

The execution team's resignations leave the state without personnel to perform lethal injections. The agency will begin assembling a new team, and officials said other states have agreed to send a lethal injection team to Washington if needed.

Yesterday's initial coverage of the mass resignation is noted here.