Saturday, 23 May 2009

Former San Quentin warden honored for speaking out against death penalty

Richard Halstead
Posted: 05/22/2009 06:37:40 PM PDT

During her stint as warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne Woodford oversaw the execution of four death row inmates without ever discussing her personal feelings about the death penalty.

On Thursday night, however, Woodford received an award from Death Penalty Focus for her courage in speaking out against capital punishment. Woodford, who went on to serve as both director and undersecretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, began sharing her thoughts about the death penalty about a year after retiring in 2006. Others honored by the San Francisco-based nonprofit included New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former California Attorney General John Van De Kamp.

Singling out Woodford and Van De Kamp, Death Penalty Focus director Lance Lindsey said, "They're courageous because they're coming out of communities that are often associated with a knee-jerk tough-on-crime position. What they represent is a smart-on-crime position."
Woodford, 56, said she has always opposed the death penalty.

"Initially for me it was just a matter of, does this really make sense to be killing people to avenge the death of someone else?" Woodford said in an interview this week.

She said it is a debate that will never be settled.

"Some people believe in an eye for an eye, and some people don't," she said.

Woodford, who started her career as a prison guard at San Quentin, said there are more practical reasons for opposing capital punishment.

She said the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent because of the time it takes to execute condemned prisoners. She said that due to improvements in prison security, capital punishment is no longer needed to protect the public from the possibility that killers might escape. She noted that prisoners can now be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. And, she said, it costs far more to execute a condemned prisoner than to keep one in prison for life.
"I just really worry about the state of California," Woodford said. "I worry about the fact that we continue to spend so much money on issues that aren't giving us any benefit. The death penalty is one of those."

Woodford said the state also can no longer afford to incarcerate nonviolent offenders or to skimp on mental health and drug treatment programs, which keep people out of prison. She said money is being wasted by sending parole violators back to state prison for minor violations.

"We're not making intelligent choices about who should be in state prison and who shouldn't," Woodford said.

During her stint as warden at San Quentin from 1999 to 2004, Woodford initiated a number of experimental programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

"We currently look back on that time with some nostalgia," said Jacques Verduin, executive director of the Insight Prison Project, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that works with San Quentin to provide rehabilitative programs.

"Jeannie was one of the first to understand that the community could play a larger role in this prison, or prisons period," Verduin said.

But Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, disputes Woodford's economic critique of capital punishment. The foundation is a public interest law organization that files friend of the court briefs to speed the implementation of executions.

"The argument assumes that the present costs are necessary and will continue and that is not a valid assumption," Scheidegger said. "The costs can be greatly reduced. The appeals don't need to last 20 years. Virginia does it in five."

In a guest editorial that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in October, Woodford recalled presiding over the execution of Robert Lee Massie. Woodford said she chose to write about Massie "because he would be the poster child for why people say we need a death penalty." Massie was originally sentenced to death in 1965, but his sentence was later commuted to life. He was paroled in 1978, murdered a liquor store owner during a robbery eight months later, pleaded guilty, and was once again sentenced to die.

Massie was one of several death row inmates who effectively volunteered to be executed by dropping their appeals, Woodford said.

"So it's really like assisting with their suicide," Woodford said. "What that ought to say to people is that permanent imprisonment isn't an easy punishment for anyone."

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at

In the Absence of Proof


The options are running out for Troy Davis, a man who has been condemned to death for killing a police officer in Georgia, but whose guilt is seriously in question.

It’s bad enough that we still execute people in the United States. It’s absolutely chilling that we’re willing to do it when we’re not even sure we’ve got the right person in our clutches.

Mr. Davis came within an hour of execution last fall. His relatives and his attorney, Jason Ewart, had come to the state prison to say goodbye. Mr. Davis had eaten his last meal, and Mr. Ewart was ready to witness his execution.

The mind-numbing tension was broken with a last-minute stay from the Supreme Court. The case then made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, which ruled 2-to-1 last month against Mr. Davis’s petition for a hearing to examine new evidence pointing to his innocence.

The countdown to the ghoulish ritual of execution resumed.

Mr. Davis was convicted of shooting a police officer to death in the parking lot of a Burger King in Savannah, Ga., in 1989. The officer, Mark Allen MacPhail, was murdered as he went to the aid of a homeless man who was being pistol-whipped.

I’m opposed to the death penalty, but I would have a very hard time finding even the faintest glimmer of sympathy for the person who murdered that officer. The problem with taking Mr. Davis’s life in response to the murder of Officer MacPhail is the steadily growing mass of evidence that Mr. Davis was not the man who committed the murder.

Nine witnesses testified against Mr. Davis at his trial in 1991, but seven of the nine have since changed their stories. One of those seven, Dorothy Ferrell, said she was on parole when she testified and was afraid that she’d be sent back to prison if she didn’t agree to cooperate with the authorities by fingering Mr. Davis.

“I told the detective that Troy Davis was the shooter,” she said in an affidavit, “even though the truth was that I didn’t know who shot the officer.”

Another witness, Darrell Collins, who was a teenager at the time of the murder, said the police had “scared” him into falsely testifying by threatening to charge him as an accessory to the crime. He said he was told that he would go to prison and might never get out if he refused to help make the case against Mr. Davis.

This week Mr. Davis’s lawyers, led by Mr. Ewart of the Arnold & Porter law firm in Washington, filed a last-ditch, long-shot petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to intervene and allow Mr. Davis’s claims of innocence to be fully examined.

An extraordinary group of 27 former judges and prosecutors joined in an amicus brief in support of the petition. Among those who signed on were William Sessions, the former director of the F.B.I.; Larry Thompson, a U.S. attorney general from 2001-2003; the former Congressman Bob Barr, who was the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986-1990; and Rudolph Gerber, who was an Arizona trial and court of appeals judge from 1979-2001.

The counsel of record for the amicus brief is the Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree. The brief asserts that the Supreme Court should intervene “because Mr. Davis can make an extraordinary showing through new, never reviewed evidence that strongly points to his innocence, and thus his execution would violate the Constitution.”

The very idea of executing someone who may in fact be innocent should also violate the nation’s conscience. Mr. Davis is incarcerated. He’s no threat to anyone. Where’s the harm in seeking out the truth and trying to see that justice is really done?

And if the truth can’t be properly sorted out, we should be unwilling to let a human life be taken on mere surmise.

There was no physical evidence against Mr. Davis, and no murder weapon was ever found. At least three witnesses who testified against him at his trial (and a number of others who were not part of the trial) have since said that a man named Sylvester “Redd” Coles admitted to killing the police officer.

Mr. Coles, who was at the scene, and who, according to witnesses, later ditched a gun of the same caliber as the murder weapon, is one of the two witnesses who have not recanted. The other is a man who initially told investigators that he could not identify the killer. Nearly two years later, at the trial, he testified that the killer was Mr. Davis.

Officer MacPhail’s murder was a horrendous crime that cries out for justice. Killing Mr. Davis, rather than remedying that tragedy, would only compound it.

Friday, 22 May 2009

World Wide Protest for Death Row Inmate Troy Davis

Thousands of people in 43 U.S. states and five continents participated in Amnesty International's "Global Day of Action," where people from all over the world protested the death sentence of Georgia man Troy Davis. The activists rallied in efforts to bring awareness and also pressure the state to overturn its decision.

Davis and his attorneys made a last ditch effort to appeal his case in the U.S. Supreme Court on May 19. He was convicted of killing a Savannah police officer 20 years ago, however new evidence has surfaced which could potentially prove Davis' innocence, reports the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

“Davis’ new evidence eviscerates the state’s case against him,” the filing said. “Despite substantial new evidence of his innocence, no court has ever held a hearing to assess the scores of new witnesses that show Mr. Davis is innocent.”

The appeal states that fulfilling the execution would be less than constitutional without a “full and fair hearing in which he could make a truly persuasive demonstration that he is actually innocent.”

A 40-year-old Davis has been situated in death row for the killing of off-duty Officer Mark Allen MacPhail. The former Army ranger was gunned down in a Burger King parking lot while was rushing to the aid of a man being pistol whipped.

Davis' case has attracted the support of Amnesty International's Jared Feuer, former president and Georgia native Jimmy Carter, Republican Congressman Bob Barr and the Pope, reports

"This case brings front and center all the problems with our criminal justice system," Feuer said. "We’ve been astonished by how focused the courts are on finality and not on getting it right."

Feuer said he was especially drawn to this case six years ago primarily because of the
overwhelming lack of physical evidence. He added that the murder weapon was never recovered
and the case was judged on inconsistent eyewitness testimonies alone.

Since Davis’ 1991 trial, seven of nine witnesses have withdrawn their testimony and some have even gone as far to name another man - Sylvester “Redd” Coles - as the shooter. Coles was at the scene at the scene of the crime and the first person to accuse Davis in the killing.

“With Troy’s case you have three execution dates that have come and gone,” Feuer said. “That’s unusual. There have been three stays. The public attention and pressure on this case is making a difference. There have been more than half a million petitions and letters from all around the world.”

One of Davis' lawyers, Jason Ewart, said the high court is his client's last resort to prove his innocence. “This is the last court that we can go to,” Ewart said. “It’s something that’s not often granted, but we think this is an exceptional case.”

Please Ask Connecticut Governor Rell To Sign The Death Penalty Abolition Bill

Early this morning the Connecticut Senate voted to abolish Connecticut's death penalty. The vote was 19-17. The bill now goes to Governor Jodi Rell (R). She sounds like she will veto the bill. So, if you care about the value of human life and making Connecticut and America more just and ending the barbarism that is the death penalty, this is an important time to spend a few moments to call or email Governor Rell to ask her to sign the bill. The phone is 860.566.4840. The email:

Connecticut is not in the "death belt." Never has been. Connecticut has had one execution in the past 48 years. Michael Ross was executed in 2005 only after he withdrew his appeals and "volunteered" for execution, and that decision was fought as far as it could go in the Courts. Regardless, there seems to be strong support for retaining the death penalty in the Connecticut Senate among its Republican members, some Democrats in the Senate crossed over to vote against the abolition measure, and and Governor Rell has repeatedly said that she supports retention of the death penalty.

The Day reports:
The Connecticut Senate voted to abolish the death penalty early Friday morning after a marathon debate, narrowly approving a bill that would make life imprisonment without possibility of release the state’s highest criminal punishment.

The Senate approved the death penalty bill, 19-17, shortly after 4 a.m., after nearly 11 hours of debate. The same measure had previously passed in the House of Representatives, and proceeds to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who has appeared likely to veto the bill.

If signed into law, the bill would make Connecticut the 16th American state without an active death penalty statute.

The bill almost died in the Senate. "Partisan acrimony virtually derailed the workings of the chamber, as the death penalty bill ran head-on into a deliberate slow-down effort by the Senate’s 12-member Republican minority, prompted by the minority party’s anger at the management of business in the Senate." Put another way, Republicans, even Connecticut Republicans, and some Democrats, even Connecticut Democrats, cling to the barbarism and caprice that is the death penalty. "Republicans filed 26 amendments on the bill, eventually calling five, and finally withdrew their remaining amendments from consideration after securing an agreement from Williams not to force a debate on reform of the state probate courts even later into Friday morning." The final vote was 17 against abolition. That means that 5 Democrats voted against abolition. You might ask what probate reform has to do with state killing.

You'll recall that just recently New Mexico abolished its death penalty when the bill was signed by Governor Richardson. Richardson took the matter seriously, requested input, and ultimately made the correct decision. What about Governor Rell?

Well, yesterday, Governor Rell had this to say:
Meanwhile, Rell reiterated her support for the death penalty Thursday, increasing the likelihood of a veto, which supporters do not have the votes to override.

“You know how I feel about the death penalty,” the governor said. “I’ve always believed there are some crimes that are so heinous it deserves the death penalty.”

And before that she repeatedly supported of state killing. In other words, this doesn't sound good.

Please lend a hand. Please take a moment to email Governor Rell at or call her office at 860.566.4840 and ask her please to sign the death penalty abolition bill. Do it because it's the right thing to do. Do it because we need to join virtually all of the rest of the world and stop state killing.
Etiquetas: abolition, Connecticut, death penalty, human rights


Thursday, 21 May 2009

Voices raised for Troy

Troy Davis could again come face to face with the Georgia execution machine. Following a federal court's rejection of his appeal, the stay of execution protecting Troy was lifted on May 16.

Troy's lawyers are planning a new appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, pleading once again for justice--that the courts should at least hear persuasive new evidence of Troy's innocence.

Among the facts that have never been heard by a jury are the statements of seven of nine witnesses who testified against Troy at his trial that they would not now implicate him. Of the remaining witnesses against Troy, one is Sylvester Coles, initially the prime suspect in the murder an off-duty Savannah, Ga., police officer that Troy was sent to death row for.

On May 19, people across the country and around the world will participate in an international day of action to save Troy. This is the latest show of protest in a struggle that has been building over years, touching people around the globe.

Troy's sister, Martina Correia, has been at the center of that struggle. She talked to Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty about the fight to save her brother.

TROY HAS faced three execution dates and could soon face a fourth. Why do the courts keep blocking his chance to prove his innocence?

I THINK this has a lot to do with the fact that Georgia wants to remain defiant. There's been a lot of good-old-boy deals done to keep Troy from having his day in court.

In Georgia, we had a case last year of a white man who had been on death row for 20 years--and when one of the witnesses recanted, a lower court of appeals ordered a whole new trial. It's amazing--why would you do this for him, but not in Troy's case, where seven witnesses at his trial have recanted.

I think what's happened is that the former District Attorney Spencer Laughton has been so entrenched in prosecutorial misconduct in this state and in the good-old-boy system that they're saying, "Look, we can't let this guy be exonerated." They botched this so badly that I don't think they could even charge Sylvester Coles with the murder at this point.

I think they've played up this idea of the victim as a good old American boy, who had a family and was ex-military and was a police officer, and he was snuffed out by this Black guy named Troy Davis, so we have to kill Troy.

It's really disgusting. Bringing up a child, I teach my son to look at people and judge them for who they are, not how they look and how they speak. But in this case, when I'm standing up with my brother Troy, I feel like I never knew just what it meant to be Black in the South. To me, Troy's case is opening this big Pandora's box of what the South is really like--how some people are trying to make changes, but there's still others trying to hold on to that good-old-boy sentiment.

I'm trying to understand why it is that my brother's life is so insignificant to them. That they would blame him for the past mistakes his lawyers made when he had absolutely no control over them. I don't understand that at all. When they rule against him, they don't say "The State of Georgia v. the Law Firm of the Georgia Resource Center." They say "The State of Georgia v. Troy Anthony Davis: Denied."

ONE BLOCK on Troy's ability to get justice has been the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed under Bill Clinton, which put strict limits on death row appeals. Can you talk about that?

THE ANTI-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act has been a total disaster for us.

Just the name of it--do they think they're dealing with terrorists, or with poor people who have no money to defend themselves? Because this law isn't being used on terrorists--it's being used against death row prisoners.

Why should there be a law that puts a time limit on innocence? It doesn't make any sense. And to top it off, they made the law retroactive, so that Troy never had a chance. I live in a country that people think is the best country in the world, yet our laws don't protect the innocent.

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act needs to be repealed. If our president is going to say that we're not a country that tortures, then when you don't give somebody an opportunity to prove their innocence, that's just a slap in the face of civil rights and human rights. Justice shouldn't be bought and paid for--but that's what happens.

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act is a technicality that is helping to put Troy in his grave. And it's not because they think he's guilty--it's because they won't even give him a chance to prove his innocence.

TROY HAS already faced three execution dates and is likely to face a fourth. If you and your family had relied only on the court system, it's probably safe to say that Troy probably would have been dead already. But you've also emphasized the struggle outside the courtroom.

OVER THE years, I've gone to conferences where people want us to wear suits and be nice. They weren't really out there raising hell. They wanted to be petition signers. I think there's a place for signing petitions, and I think there's a place for holding up signs, and I think there's a place for raising hell. I think it takes all of that.

The problem is that I couldn't find anybody who would believe me, because they thought, "Well, she's his sister. Of course she's going to think he's innocent." And I had lawyers from the Georgia Resource Center saying: "Don't call attention to this case. The media can be very bad. Maybe we can work on the prosecutor." It seemed like every time I turned around, it's like "be quiet, be quiet, be a good little girl."

But I thought, "I'm not ashamed because my brother's on death row. I love my brother, and I know my brother is innocent, and I'm going to prove it." So I realized I had to start challenging the system.

What I had to do is stand up and say: "I'm going to scream at the top of my lungs until somebody listens." I started asking: Why are we waiting until somebody gets an execution date before we spend millions of dollars, and sign petitions, and fax the governors? Why weren't we working on these cases of innocence beforehand? Why aren't we being proactive instead of always reactive?

That's why when I fight against the death penalty, it's not just for Troy. Of course, I'm fighting for my brother because I want to save his life. But I found that there are bigger issues--systemic problems, rooted in racism and poverty and economics.

So many other Troy Davises are out there, but there are so many families who don't know how to fight, or they're afraid to fight, or they don't have the strength to fight, or their relatives are too old to fight.

So I'm trying to give a voice to people who some say are voiceless. Then I started getting people saying to me, "I wish I had a sister like you." And I say back: "I may not be your sister by blood, but I'm still your sister. But I can't fight your battle. I can't tell your story like you tell your story. So instead of you telling me how good I am, why don't you stand up beside me, and let's fight together."

THE GLOBAL day of action for Troy on May 19 is Malcolm X's birthday, and your mother's birthday, too. What do you hope it will accomplish?

THE GLOBAL day of action has taken on a life of its own. There are actions in all 50 states, and I think there are actions in about 21 countries, some as far away as Africa. The name Troy Anthony Davis is becoming known all over the world.

But what this says to me is that, with a collective voice, people are saying, "We're not taking this crap anymore, and it doesn't make any sense what you're doing."

I had this girl break down crying when she called to talk about what they were doing for Troy. She told me how her and her 60-something-year-old mother were out on the highway, getting signatures and wearing "Troy Davis Innocent" shirts. To me, that is more inspirational than anything that the State of Georgia could do against my brother.

I think it's ironic that it's my mother's birthday and Malcolm X's birthday, because my mother is a really passive, very prayerful person. But she's also very protective of her child. And she's had to endure so much. She's had me battling cancer, my brother on death row, and my father dying six months after my brother was put on death row. My sister battled multiple sclerosis when she was a teenager, and she's still standing.

That to me is one of the most powerful influences I can have. I got an award one time for being an "Unstoppable Woman," and I tell people if I'm unstoppable, it's because my mother was unstoppable first. For her to stand in the face of all she's facing, and still have faith and still get up in the morning and push on--that's one of the most powerful things I could see.

I think the day of action is going to be a testament to her birthday and to the legacy of Malcolm X, because Malcolm X did so much for our community and for getting people to stand up.

For the global day of action, we have the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Amnesty International, the NAACP, the National Action Network, the ACLU--many organizations that don't work together much, and they're doing phenomenal things.

It's all because this case brings together everything that's wrong with the death penalty. It involves racism, it involves coercion, it involves economics, it involves police misconduct.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be speaking before the European Union and the Council of Europe, and that people would be calling me from other countries. Yesterday, a nun called from Ireland to say a prayer for Troy, and I told her I wasn't feeling well, so she said a prayer for me--she said they have a picture of my brother in their diocese, and they pray for him daily.

When you hear things like that, how can you not fight? And why aren't there more of us fighting?

YOU ALWAYS talk about how this struggle is bigger than just Troy. Can you say more about why?

I TELL people that no matter what happens, we have to push on, because Troy Davis is my brother, but there are other Troy Davises behind him. There were Troy Davises in front of him, and the struggle goes on. If we don't fight, we're going to lose much more than this fight against the death penalty. We'll lose ourselves.

I know that a lot of people are saying "we can't afford the death penalty anymore," and some of the legislation abolishing the death penalty is based on economics. But I hope at one point, the U.S. gets to be where we start teaching kids in schools about human rights. Most people don't even know when their human and civil rights are being violated. I think that happens so much in this country. And I think we need to have some people with integrity running for office, and we need to start holding them accountable.

I think that it's going to take a revolution. And it's coming, because with all the things that are going on--the death penalty, human rights, economics, racism--it's like a powder keg, waiting to explode. Someday soon, people are going to see what other people see--that we need to have human rights and human dignity for all.

Hopefully, one day, we won't have a need for an organization named the Campaign to End the Death Penalty because we won't have a death penalty. I look forward to that day in my lifetime. I look forward to that day very soon.

If we have to start marching in the streets from city to city, then we're going to have to start doing that--because these people need to understand that we're standing up for justice. And if they're not going to uphold the justice that we're supposed to have, then we're going to demand the justice that we need.

(Source :

Former judges push for hearing on Troy Davis innocence claim

Group asks Supreme Court to send death row case back to federal court.

Twenty-seven former judges, justices and prosecutors are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to allow death-row inmate Troy Davis’ innocence claims to be heard in federal court.

The filing comes a day after Davis’ lawyers filed their final legal bid. They are asking the nation’s highest court to send Davis’ case back so a judge can consider the recantation testimony of a number of key witnesses who testified for the state at the 1991 trial.

Davis sits on death row for the killing of off-duty Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989. MacPhail, a 27-year-old father of two and former U.S. Army ranger, was shot before he could draw his weapon.

Davis can make “an extraordinary showing through new, never reviewed evidence that strongly points to his innocence,” the judges’ and prosecutors’ filing said. To allow Davis’ execution without appropriate legal review is “a plain constitutional injustice,” the filing said.

Among those signing the friend-of-the-court brief were former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry Thompson; two former state Supreme Court chief justices, including Norman Fletcher of Georgia; nine former U.S. attorneys, including former Georgia congressman Bob Barr and former FBI Director William Sessions; three former judges from the federal appeals court in Philadelphia; and former state attorneys general from Florida and New Jersey.

In a 2-1 decision in April, the federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected Davis’ request for an evidentiary hearing. The court, which had postponed Davis’ execution, extended the stay for 30 days. That expired Saturday.

Since Davis’ trial, seven of nine state witnesses have recanted their testimony and other witnesses have implicated Sylvester “Redd” Coles as the shooter. Coles was at the scene and was the first person to implicate Davis in the shooting.

(Source: )

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

After 22 Years on Death Row, Paul House is Cleared

Paul House’s name has finally been cleared, bringing to an end two decades of struggle for freedom after a wrongful conviction in Tennessee. House (pictured above with his mother, Joyce) served more than two decades on Tennessee’s death row before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that he was entitled to a new hearing. He was freed last July, but was under house arrest facing a new trial until charges were dropped May 12.

House, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair, is looking forward to a trip to California for his grandfather’s 90th birthday. He was 23 when he was sent to death row and is 47 today. "This gives me a life,” he told CNN last week. “The only life I had was prison life, and that was nothing to be happy about."

The Innocence Project has worked with House’s attorneys on forensic issues for several years and filed a brief in his Supreme Court case. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld said House’s exoneration highlights the need for courts to look closely at appeals based on new evidence of innocence.

"The Supreme Court was right to make sure all the evidence was fully considered in this case," Neufeld said. “The five justices who ruled in Paul House’s favor had the wisdom to recognize that there was enough evidence of his innocence to allow a full hearing and more investigation which ultimately proved he did not commit this crime. This is a profoundly important legal principle, but it also saved Paul House’s life. This case should give the Supreme Court great pause, and it should cause them to look more closely at cases like this.”

Read more about House’s case here, and read below for more on other clients around the country seeking access to DNA testing to prove their innocence.

(Source :

Missouri executes Skillicorn for 1994 murder

Dennis Skillicorn was calm — “remarkably calm” — in his final hours.

The convicted murderer was executed at the state corrections facility here at 12:34 a.m. Wednesday, 11 minutes after being administered a series of injections that left him unconscious and ultimately stopped his heart.

He became the first Missouri inmate to be put to death in nearly four years. He was the 67th since capital punishment was reinstated in the state in 1989.

Skillicorn declined a sedative in the hours leading up to the execution, prison officials said, and was accommodating when led into chamber and secured on a gurney. His final meal was a double cheeseburger, fries and a slice of cheesecake from a local restaurant.

The execution was scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m., but was delayed a little over 20 minutes while the state Supreme Court considered a sixth and final motion from Skillicorn’s lawyers to stay the execution.

The procedure itself took longer than in years past due to a new protocol. Previously, the three chemicals were administered in succession, and the execution was completed within four or five minutes.

But in response to court cases over the last few years examining the constitutionality of the lethal injection process, corrections officials this time paused after the first injection to ensure that Skillicorn was in fact unconscious. The fatal second and third injections were then administered.

Shortly after witnesses to the execution were seated in adjoining rooms with views into the execution chamber, Skillicorn could be seen and heard speaking to witnesses there on his behalf — his wife and two spiritual advisers. His words were muffled and could not be understood.

He continued speaking until the sedative rendered him unconscious.

His wife, Paula Skillicorn, a former Kansas City Star reporter who married him after covering his case for the paper, could be seen through two panes of tinted glass. As the execution progressed, her hand trembled and she clutched a tissue. One of the spiritual advisers held his hand on her shoulder, but neither made any overt movements.

Witnesses for the state included three reporters, three state lawmakers and officials from the Department of Corrections and the Attorney General’s Office. Prison officials narrated the procedure as it unfolded.

No one witnessed the execution on behalf of the victim, Richard Drummond.

In a lengthy letter written shortly before his execution, Skillicorn expressed remorse for his crime and apologized to Drummond’s family.

“My prayer for them has always been that God somehow deliver them from their torment,” he wrote.

Skillicorn also wrote that he had been delivered from “the sorrow, despair and regrets of my life” by his religious faith.

“Today I have no doubts that God does change a man from the inside out,” he wrote. “I know because I’ve personally experienced the work of his mighty hand.”

Gov. Jay Nixon, who could have granted clemency and reduced Skillicorn’s sentence to life in prison without parole, released a statement following the execution asking Missourians to remember the victims of Skillicorn’s crimes.

“The authority of the state to impose capital punishment bears with it great responsibility…” he said in the statement. “When these sentences are carried out, it is not with satisfaction, but with a solemn determination.”

Outside the prison, about 70 protesters gathered in opposition to the death penalty. One man — reportedly a Catholic priest from Illinois — was arrested after crossing onto prison property.

Skillicorn, of Kansas City, was one of three men charged in the murder of Drummond, a telephone company supervisor from Excelsior Springs. He and one of the men, Allen Nicklasson also killed a couple in Arizona a few days later.

Nicklasson remains on death row in Missouri. The third accomplice, Tim DeGraffenreid, was a teenager at the time of the crime and is now serving a life sentence.

(Source :

Ex-Inmate Draws Attention To Need For Help

Connecticut - Let us applaud the man's resourcefulness. Leroy James Gardner, a 44-year-old ex-bank robber just out of federal prison, needed help. Mr. Gardner, as reported by Courant columnist Stan Simpson last week, was released in Hartford with no money or contacts and without his anxiety medication. He walked over to the Capitol and, after failing to arrange a meeting with the governor, sought out Judiciary Committee co-chairman Michael Lawlor.

Mr. Lawlor was at a hearing on the death penalty, along with people from the Board of Pardons and Paroles. They met with Mr. Gardner and got him a bed at a local shelter.

Prisoners shouldn't have to walk into the Capitol to get help re-entering society. Those on parole or probation are supervised as they connect to housing, job centers, mental health, substance abuse counseling and other services.

Mr. Gardner represents a gap in the state and federal systems. He had served his sentence (for a parole violation), was not sentenced to probation and wasn't paroled. Such "end-of-sentence" inmates are offered help before they leave prison, but are on their own when they get out.

This doesn't work for many ex-inmates. "A lot of these guys need assistance and a supervising agent," said William Carbone, head of the state Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division.

The numbers bear him out. The state's most recent study of recidivism, released earlier this year, shows that 37 percent of all inmates returned to prison for a new offense within three years — but only 23 percent of parolees went back, suggesting that transitional services make a difference.

Helping inmates who have served their time to find a decent life is both humane and sensible. An ex-offender with a job and a place to live is less likely to threaten public safety and more likely to help raise his children. Also, community programs are less expensive than prison, the average cost of which is almost $90 a day in Connecticut.

The state has put much more emphasis on preventing recidivism in the past half-dozen years, and the investment is working. The federal programs are, if anything, more intensive than the state's. But end-of-sentence inmates are harder to help. How to reach them?

Maureen Price-Borland, executive director of Community Partners in Action, a nonprofit that works with people in the criminal justice system, suggested that major cities have centralized re-entry centers where all offenders can connect with the services they need. Half of released male inmates return to Hartford, Bridgeport or New Haven, and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is working on a comprehensive re-entry program. Another possibility is to revisit the sentencing process and require some type of transitional supervision.

So the man who walked into the Capitol in prison garb had a point and may help change the system.

(Source : )

Missouri prepares for first execution in 4 years

BONNE TERRE, Mo. (AP) — Missouri early Wednesday executed a man who killed a good Samaritan who had stopped on the road to help him, ending a nearly four-year period without an execution in the state. Texas, meanwhile, executed its 15th prisoner this year.

Dennis Skillicorn, 49, received an injection at 12:23 a.m. at the prison in Bonne Terre and died 11 minutes later. It was the first execution in Missouri since Marlin Gray was put to death in October 2005.

As part of a lengthy final statement, Skillicorn apologized to the family of the victim, Richard Drummond, saying that "for the last 15 years I've lived with the remorse of my actions."

In Huntsville, Texas, Michael Lynn Riley also apologized as he was executed Tuesday for fatally stabbing a convenience store clerk during a robbery more than two decades ago.

"I know I hurt you very bad," Riley, 51, said to his victim's relatives, including her two daughters and husband. "I want you to know I'm sorry. I hope one day you can move on and, if not, I understand."

Executions in Missouri had been on hold shortly after Gray's death as the courts decided whether lethal injection in general, and the state's three-drug method in particular, violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Some argued that if the initial anesthetic doesn't take hold, a third drug that stops the heart can cause excruciating pain. But the inmate would not be able to communicate the pain because of a second drug that paralyzes him.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld lethal injection, and a federal judge ruled in favor of Missouri's execution method, opening the way for executions to begin again.

Skillicorn mouthed words to his wife and two spiritual advisers as the first drug was administered to him. Soon, he appeared unconscious.

As part of a new protocol, curtains in witness viewing areas were then closed for about two minutes while medical staff checked to make sure that Skillicorn was unconscious and that the catheters were working properly. Once confirmed, the next two drugs were administered, and he was pronounced dead a short time later.

In 1994, a car carrying Skillicorn, Allen Nicklasson and Tim DeGraffenreid stalled along Interstate 70 north of Fulton in Callaway County.

Drummond, from the northwestern Missouri town of Excelsior Springs, stopped to help, but was forced at gunpoint to drive the men toward Kansas City. On the way, the men stopped in a rural area, and Nicklasson shot Drummond in the back of the head.

Nicklasson and Skillicorn were convicted of first-degree murder. Nicklasson is also on death row. DeGraffenreid, who was 17 when the crime took place, served time for second-degree murder.

Supporters wanted Skillicorn's sentence commuted to life in prison, calling him a role model for other inmates. But in denying a clemency request Tuesday, Gov. Jay Nixon noted that Skillicorn was on parole for another murder at the time Drummond was kidnapped, robbed and killed. Nixon also noted that Skillicorn was convicted of two subsequent murders in Arizona just days after Drummond was killed.

(Source :

Missouri executes Skillicorn for 1994 murder

BONNE TERRE, Mo. | Dennis Skillicorn died from lethal injection early this morning, becoming the first Missouri prisoner to be executed in nearly four years and the 67th since 1989.

Skillicorn, 49, was pronounced dead at 12:34 a.m. at the state’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center.

The Kansas City man was one of the “Good Samaritan killers” who murdered Richard Drummond of Excelsior Springs, and later an Arizona couple in a 1994 crime-spree that stretched from Missouri to Mexico. Skillicorn had been on death row since his conviction in 1996.

Prior to today, Missouri hadn’t carried out an execution since October 2005.

In 2007, the state was one of several to delay executions pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case over the constitutionality of lethal injections. The high court found the method of execution constitutional in April 2008, however, and a lower court issued a similar ruling specific to Missouri a few months later.

Gov. Jay Nixon denied Skillicorn’s clemency petition shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday.

“The jury that convicted Dennis Skillicorn determined that he deserved the most severe punishment under Missouri law, and my decision on clemency upholds the jury’s action,” Nixon said in a statement.

Skillicorn was sentenced to death for the murder of Drummond, a telephone-company supervisor who picked up Skillicorn and two other men after their car broke down in central Missouri.

Skillicorn and Allen Nicklasson continued their crime spree in Arizona, where they killed another man and his wife after the man attempted to help them with car troubles.

Nicklasson, who actually pulled the trigger in the three murders, remains on death row. The third accomplice, Tim DeGraffenreid, was a teenager when he participated in the Missouri murder and is now serving a life sentence.

(Source :

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Missouri's other execution

Obviously, there's been a lot of coverage about the Dennis Skillicorn execution, set for 12:01 a.m Wednesday. But the Missouri Supremes have also scheduled a date for Reginald Clemons, who will be put to death June 17.

He is one of four men convicted in the murders of sisters Robin Kerry, 19, and Julie Kerry, 20, on the old Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in 1991.

The sisters, both graduates of Hazelwood East High School, were stripped, beaten and raped before they were shoved off the bridge into the Mississippi River. Their cousin, Tom Cummins, 19, was forced to watch, then ordered to jump into the river. He survived.


Rally planned Tuesday to protest Troy Davis execution

Final appeal to be filed with Supreme Court in case where witnesses recanted.

Death-row inmate Troy Anthony Davis will file a last-ditch appeal Tuesday to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a rally to protest his execution is planned for Tuesday night at the state Capiol.

Davis’ attorneys asked the high court to send Davis’ case back to a federal judge for an evidentiary hearing on his innocence claims. He was convicted of killing a Savannah police officer 20 years ago.

“Davis’ new evidence eviscerates the state’s case against him,” the filing said. “Despite substantial new evidence of his innocence, no court has ever held a hearing to assess the scores of new witnesses that show Mr. Davis is innocent.”

The petition says that carrying out Davis’ execution without a “full and fair hearing in which he could make a truly persuasive demonstration that he is actually innocent” would be unconstitutional.

Davis, 40, sits on death row for the killing of off-duty Officer Mark Allen MacPhail. The 27-year-old former Army ranger was shot three times before he could draw his weapon. He was responding to the wails of a man being pistol whipped in a Burger King parking lot.

Since Davis’ 1991 trial, seven of nine state witnesses have recanted their testimony and other witnesses have implicated Sylvester “Redd” Coles as the shooter. Coles was at the scene at the time of the shooting and the first person to implicate Davis in the killing.

Davis is filing an unusual petition for a writ of habeas corpus directly to the Supreme Court. It is through these lawsuits, almost always filed in lower courts and then appealed to the high court, that an inmate can bring a constitutional claim.

The last time the court granted relief to such an extraordinary petition was in 1925, Jason Ewart, one of Davis’ attorneys, said. This involved Philip Grossman, who was serving time for contempt even though he had been granted a presidential pardon. The high court ordered Grossman’s release.

Since then, however, the high court has sent some cases back to federal court judges, directing them to conduct hearings, he said.

“This is the last court that we can go to,” Ewart said. “It’s something that’s not often granted, but we think this is an exceptional case.”

Davis’ innocence claims have attracted worldwide attention. Former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and former FBI Director William Sessions have asked that Davis be spared death by lethal injection. Amnesty International is holding a rally on Davis’ behalf Tuesday afternoon at the state Capitol.

Chatham County prosecutors, who tried Davis, have long expressed confidence that Davis was the triggerman. Larry Chisolm, who became Chatham’s new DA in January, declined comment Monday on the substance of prior court rulings or the facts of Davis’ case.

“He’s not going to take any action at all until all appeals are exhausted,” Lydia Sermons, a spokesman for the DA’s office, said Monday.

Davis’ Supreme Court petition notes that the only two eyewitnesses who have not recanted their trial testimony are Coles, who later told police he had a .38 caliber revolver on the night of the shooting, and Stephen Sanders, who was at the Burger King with his Air Force buddies.

Two hours after the shooting, Sanders told police he could not recognize anyone at the scene except by their clothes. At the trial two years later, Sanders identified Davis as the killer.

Davis’ recantation evidence is exceptional and warrants intervention by the high court, his petition says.

“Few — if any — recantation cases involve consistent, multiple recantations from state witnesses who were innocent bystanders to the crime,” the petition says.

In past years, Davis has come extraordinarily close to being executed and to getting relief in the courts.

Davis’ execution had previously been set three times but he was granted stays each time — once in 2007 less than 24 hours before he was to be put to death.

Davis has lost his bid for a new evidentiary hearing in two important court rulings, both decided by one-vote margins. In March 2008, the Georgia Supreme Court turned him down in a 4-3 decision. A month ago, the federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected Davis’ appeal by a 2-1 vote.

On April 16, the two federal appeals court judges in the majority said they viewed the recantations with skepticism and, after reviewing Davis’ claims, “remain unpersuaded.”

In dissent, Judge Rosemary Barkett said to execute Davis in the face of the new evidence “is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

The court kept in place Davis’ stay of execution for another 30 days. That expired Saturday.

The rally is being organized by Amnesty International.

(Source :

As execution nears, Skillicorn loses two more appeals

Legal options for a Kansas City man scheduled to be executed shortly after midnight tonight continue to dwindle with the denial of more appeals.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis late Monday denied Dennis Skillicorn’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling last week. The ruling concerned whether Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon can fairly consider Skillicorn’s clemency request because of his previous role as Missouri attorney general.

The appeals court on Monday also denied a separate motion by Skillicorn seeking a stay of execution.

Skillicorn, 49, was sentenced to death for the 1994 killing of Richard Drummond in Lafayette County. Drummond was shot to death by a co-defendant of Skillicorn after Drummond stopped to help them after their car had broken down.

Skillicorn still has a legal action pending in U.S. District Court in Kansas City and is seeking a hearing from the U.S. Supreme Court.


Missouri Supreme Court rejects delay in Skillicorn’s execution

JEFFERSON CITY | The Missouri Supreme Court has denied a request to delay the scheduled execution of a man convicted in the slaying of a Good Samaritan 15 years ago.

Dennis Skillicorn is to be executed at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for the 1994 killing of Richard Drummond, who stopped to help when Skillicorn’s car broke down. It started a multistate crime rampage.

Skillicorn’s attorneys sought to delay the execution so they could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that request was denied Monday. The denial came several hours after a former inmate and ministers who worked with Skillicorn held a news conference in the Capitol asking for clemency from the governor.

Former inmate Jack Pyle says he turned his life around after regularly talking with Skillicorn.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has set an execution date of June 17 for Reginald Clemons, who was convicted 15 years ago in the deaths of two sisters shoved off an abandoned Mississippi River bridge in St. Louis.

Clemons was among four men convicted in the deaths of 21-year-old Julie Kerry and her 19-year-old sister, Robin. Supporters believe Clemons is innocent.

He confessed, but supporters say he did so only after being beaten by police.

(source :

Monday, 18 May 2009

America, Religious Values, and the Death Penalty; Or, If it Was Good Enough for Jesus and Socrates...

America, Religious Values, and the Death Penalty; Or, If it Was Good Enough for Jesus and Socrates...

By Louis A. Ruprecht

Posted on May 18, 2009, Printed on May 18, 2009

It is one of the more striking features of the poorly-named “Western tradition” that two of its foundational stories both involve an act of extraordinary injustice and an ultimately, unwarranted, state-sponsored execution. To say that the death penalty lies at the very heart of Western civilization is true, so long as we modify that point: a concern with the death penalty lies at the very heart of Western civilization.

That seems an important modification to make, precisely because the United States finds itself in the peculiar position of being the only “Western” country within its primary coalitions (NAFTA and NATO especially) still to employ the death penalty. Europe has outgrown the death penalty (Turkey will surely have to give it up if it is to have any hope of being admitted to the European Union). The United States has not outgrown the death penalty, at least not yet. And so it finds itself in odd and uncomfortable company with those countries that still use the death penalty quite liberally: among them Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, and Myanmar.

Deterrence, Vengeance, Retribution

In an increasingly abolitionist global environment, what are the arguments for a continued commitment to the death penalty? There are three main ones.

Far and away the most common argument offered in favor if the death penalty is the argument for deterrence. The threat of execution, it is held, deters violent crime. The problems with this argument are two-fold: first and foremost, there is no statistical evidence to suggest that it is true. States that had a death penalty, got rid of it, then brought it back again, display no shift whatsoever in their rates of violent crime and/or homicide. The reasons for this are not far to find. Most violent crimes are crimes of passion, not premeditation. Deterrence would presumably only work for crimes that are premeditated. And those crimes, murder-for-hire mostly, are committed by professionals of a sort who do not intend to get caught.

Deterrence also hinges on what are essentially Utilitarian premises, the old Anglo-Saxon moral calculus of measuring out dollops of pleasure and pain. It is held that the ultimate suffering of one person is outweighed by the benefits to society as a whole. The Classical Athenians, many of them at any rate, reasoned this way when they elected to put Socrates to death. The Athenian death penalty was believed to deter too much cynical philosophy. The Roman regional administration in Judea reasoned this way as well, believing that so egregious a form of punishment as crucifixion would deter rebellion in this most rebellious of its eastern provinces. Pontius Pilate mingles world-weary cynicism with Utilitarian calculation in some of the most memorable lines assigned to him in the Gospel according to John.

One met similar Utilitarian arguments for deterrence when the question of state-sponsored torture was still in question. And it was here that the intuitive problem with Utilitarianism as a singular moral philosophy became most apparent. It is not the attention to moral consequences and moral results; one can care about consequences and not be a Utilitarian. Rather, the problem is that such “consequential” reasoning about deterrence takes off the table any conception of human life as having sacred value. And as a corollary, appeals to deterrence seem to take off the table any initial inclination to deem certain things unthinkable and therefore unjustifiable in any circumstance. Things like torture, or the deliberate infliction of pain.

Now, with so many obvious problems of ancient and modern pedigree, why is the argument of deterrence made at all? In short, deterrence is invoked to distract attention away from what is, for real inspiration for an inclination to the death penalty: vengeance. State-sponsored killing offers a singular way to express the outrage we quite naturally feel in the face of violent crime, especially those most heinous acts of human outrage that result in death.

To be sure, the desire to kill in response to a killing is understandable, and all too visceral a reality for victims of violence and their families. It is a natural, and often quite understandable, response to the trauma of violence and the grief of loss. But to submit to this emotion—for it is an emotion, and not an argument—is ironically to eviscerate all the original reasons for state-sponsored killing I outlined above.

The logic of vengeance is the logic of the blood feud. It initiates a cycle of violence that cannot be ended in its own terms. The state intervenes with a sentence of death precisely to take this exercise of ultimate power out of the hands of those most personally and emotionally involved, and to render justice less emotionally. The state takes the power of killing away from feuding clans and enacts justice, not vengeance. That has always been the understanding of how the death penalty should work. It offers an answer to an age-old question posed both by the Bible and by Greek tragedy (and Greek philosophy): how to escape a never-ending cycle of revenge killing? In short, one escapes to the state and its institutions. The state kills with blindfolds on, de-personalizing this most personal of all human actions, with careful attention to certain ritual effects and due process. The idea is that this creates the possibility of that most elusive of all psychological and moral events: closure.

It is precisely by thinking through the outlaw logic of vengeance that one is led to the third, and probably the only compelling, argument for the death penalty. It is for that very reason harder to give a name. Let’s call it just retribution. Such an idea captures what I tried to describe as the limits of the illogic of vengeance. The state ironically asserts the value of the lives of those citizens who have been lost to violence, by violently punishing their killers. The state takes the power of life and death out of the hands of individual citizens, and places it squarely in the hands of the people, represented by a jury in the US system of justice.

This is not a silly argument, and it will not be defeated by the quotes one normally hears arrayed against it. “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” Just retribution is intended as an answer to that question. Gandhi offered a still more memorable line in opposition to the death penalty: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” There is something to that observation, but the blindness of capital punishment is held up as a virtue by its supporters. It is supposed to be killing that is not personal; it does not see the people, only crime and punishment.

Cruel and Unusual

The real problem with the concept of just retribution is the notion of “justice” it employs. For in my discussion up to now, I have only imagined imposing the ultimate penalty in a case where someone has been killed. But historically speaking, the death penalty has rarely been limited to acts of premeditated murder. Rape and robbery have regularly been punished with death, and still are in many of the countries I mentioned above.

This is a subtle point, but a crucial one. Conceptions of what rendering of justice might be “proportional” changes dramatically with time. Equally changeable are our notions of what kinds of punishment are appropriate. In the memorable first pages of Michel Foucault’s masterful Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes an almost surreal public execution in Paris on the 2nd of March 1757: a convicted murderer is submitted to flesh-tearing, burning sulphur, molten lead, burning oil and wax, and finally drawing and quartering with horses. When the horses failed to pull him apart, his limbs had to be cut at the joints until the horses finally broke the man. Unbelievably, he lived through all of this. Later, in the end, his corpse was ceremoniously burned, and the ashes publically dispersed. Clearly, when the founding fathers of the Unites States added the specific prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments” in the Eighth Amendment, they had practices like this in mind. Such torture is not just retribution; torture was no longer thought to be “just” at all.

Justice, in this sense, is not absolute; the execution of a death sentence is, however. Therein lies the paradox of the ultimate penalty of death. The justice required to make the argument for just retribution make sense needs to be what it cannot be: timeless and unchanging. Human justice is never that. It is important to recall that both Socrates’ and Jesus’ executions were entirely legitimate, according to the standards of the day in Athens and in Rome; it is only in retrospect that we recall them as acts of grave injustice.

Evolving Standards of Decency

Over the past forty years, the United States Supreme Court has returned repeatedly to that dilemma as it tries to hammer out a view of the death penalty that will fit within our Constitutional system; as well as addressing what it famously referred to as “evolving standards of decency that mark progress of a maturing society.”

That phrase appeared in the first major death penalty case to be heard in response to the cultural tumult of the 1960s, Witherspoon v. Illinois [391 US 510 (1968)]. The case did not tackle the Constitutionality of the death penalty directly, but rather examined the question of what properly constitutes a jury in a capital case. It was a fascinating way to begin the debate; not by examining principles or Constitutional logic, but rather by looking at the actual procedures through which human beings enact their conceptions of justice, in courts of law.

William C. Witherspoon was charged with killing a police officer to avoid arrest in 1959. In his original trial, during the jury selection process, 47 potential jurors were “excused for cause.” This ungentle phrase refers to the individual examination of potential jurors known as voir dire. The prosecuting attorney asked each potential juror how they felt about the death penalty; any who expressed reservations were excused, even though only five of them had said that they would under no circumstances consider the penalty.

The majority of US Supreme Court justices concluded that “the State of Illinois has stacked the deck against the petitioner,” and that in so doing it had violated the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee that US citizens cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property without “due process of law.” In other words, Mr. Witherspoon did not receive his due in the process of selecting a jury of his peers.

The Court went still further, saying that the justices could even have imagined a situation in which a potential juror, while personally opposed to the death penalty, could “subordinate his personal views” to his oath, to do his duty as a juror “and to obey the law of the state.”

Clearly, this was a very progressive and very far-reaching decision. So much so that the three Justices who dissented (Justices Black, Harlan and White) said that if the majority wanted to get rid of the death penalty, then it should say so explicitly, not play games and make it practically impossible to administer.

Four years later, the Court struck again in Furman v. Georgia [92 S Ct 2726 (1972)], a strange case that involved three different death sentences, two from Georgia and one from Texas; two of the three involved rape, not murder. The decision was a narrow one (5-4) and ran to nearly 300 pages, as opposed to the 18-page decision in Witherspoon.

Here once again the question of what constitutes the proper role of a jury was at issue. In essence, juries in capital cases had what the majority referred to as “untrammeled discretion” in deciding who received a death sentence and who not. Unsurprisingly, prejudices were revealed in the statistical record of who received a death sentence in the United States. Assessing death sentences imposed since 1930, the Court noted that blacks constituted 57.7% of all death row inmates, men constituted over 90% of those inmates, and the indigent constituted nearly 100%. In such circumstances, trust in the fairness of the system was fatally compromised, and such jury discretion (read: prejudice) rendered the punishment cruel and unusual, and thus in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

This decision effectively struck down every capital statute in the country.

Yet there was great confusion about what the Supreme Court intended to say in the Furman decision. The Justices did not help themselves by writing so many separate opinions, and in disagreeing so vehemently with one another. More to the point, the justices had once again skirted the question of whether the death penalty was in principle unconstitutional, contenting themselves with a close analysis of the relevant court procedures, not the principle.

Three main interpretations of the meaning of the Furman decision arose. First, some felt that the Court clearly was opposed to the death penalty across the board, and would always find some procedural way to strike it down in any particular case; these people gave up on the attempt to write new death penalty legislation. A second group of interpreters felt that the Court was simply opposed to jury “discretion”; in their view, a mandatory death penalty would neatly solve the problem. A third group felt that the Court was inviting further reflection by legislatures on how to create a system where juries had some discretion in particular cases, but not the “untrammeled” sort that led to the willy-nilly execution of blacks, men, and the poor.

By 1973, nine states had already abolished the death penalty. After the Furman decision, 35 states drew up new death penalty laws, 20 of them with mandatory death sentences, and 15 with various attempts to “guide” jury discretion toward more consistent judgments.

Several states had more distinctive histories. New Jersey scrapped its death penalty and did not reinstate it until 1982 (it never used it, then finally scrapped it again in 2007). North Dakota and Kansas maintained the death penalty for a single crime: murder committed by someone already imprisoned for murder. Massachusetts and South Dakota legislatures saw their new death penalty statutes vetoed by their governors. And California’s then-governor Ronald Reagan was so outraged by the California State Supreme Court’s overturning of his state’s death penalty that he personally lobbied for that tried-and-true California initiative: an electoral proposition (Prop. 17) that called for reinstating a mandatory death penalty in California. (A second California State Supreme Court Justice, Rose Byrd, was ousted over this same issue in 1987.)

In 1976, the Supreme Court clarified its intentions further. Gregg v. Georgia [96 S Ct 2909 (1976)] actually involved five separate cases, all from Southern states (Georgia, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Louisiana). In three of those cases, by a 5-4 vote, the Court affirmed state laws that provided instruction to juries in order to guide their moral decisions regarding the sentence of death. By a 7-2 vote (with Chief Justice Rehnquist writing in dissent), the Court overturned mandatory death penalty statutes in Louisiana and North Carolina (the North Carolina law mandated death for sixteen different crimes ranging from murder to rape to armed robbery).

The Gregg decision led to the creation of the system that we still have today. Any trial in which a state or federal prosecutor intends to seek the death penalty must be a “bifurcated trial.” In the first phase, guilt or innocence is assessed. In a second trial, new evidence is heard involving the mitigating and aggravating circumstances in this particular case. At the conclusion of the second phase of a capital trial, jurors are provided with a questionnaire that essentially provides the “guided discretion” for which the Court was calling. By the time you have worked through the questionnaire, you will have often been led to one or the other conclusion. Finally, any death sentence carries an automatic and mandatory appeal to the State Supreme Court.

State-Sponsored Suicide

The moratorium on the enactment of the death penalty was thus lifted in 1976, and on 17 January 1977, Gary Gilmore became the first US citizen to be executed (in Utah) since the Witherspoon decision nearly a decade earlier. Gilmore, like Jesse Walter Bishop (who was the third person to be executed, on 22 October 1979 in Nevada) was executed voluntarily, causing Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to complain that the death penalty was fast becoming “state-sponsored suicide.”

The history of the death penalty since the landmark Gregg decision may be divided into three stages. In the first (1977-1982), there was a good faith effort by courts and legislatures alike to administer the new standards and procedural safeguards the Supreme Court had called for. In the second stage (1983-2000), it began to seem as if state courts and legislatures were abandoning the standards and returning to the pre-1968 business of state-sponsored execution. And then, quite suddenly in 2000, a new questioning of the justice of the death penalty emerged in some surprising and unexpected quarters.

Three cases were especially revealing of the disturbing new realities when the standards and safeguards were largely abandoned.

On 5/6 October 1983, James D. Autry received a stay of execution in Texas just 24 minutes before he was scheduled to die, and after already being strapped to the gurney with the IV tubes already inserted in his arms (Autry was later executed on 14 March 1984). This seemed to suggest that states no longer needed to worry about cruel and unusual punishment.

On 15 December 1983, John Eldon Smith was executed in Georgia; his wife was also sentenced to death in this case, but she was not executed. This seemed to indicate that states no longer needed to worry about untrammeled discretion.

And on 2 November 1984, Velma Bullard Barfield became the first woman to be executed since 1961, in the state of North Carolina. Barfield’s case was especially disturbing to abolitionists, and not only those like myself who worked on her case. The governor of the state, James Hunt, was running for Senator against arch-conservative Jesse Helms, and Helms had made the question of granting Barfield clemency a major campaign issue. The execution was scheduled just six days before the election. Barfield’s clemency petition, supported even by the prison staff with which she worked closely to assist new female inmates, was denied. If Velma Barfield could not receive clemency, then the prospects for anyone on death row nationwide looked grim indeed.

Then some unusual things began to happen; states started re-asserting a moratorium, this time because of the prevalence of new investigative procedures and DNA evidence that began to exonerate, much to the horror of all involved, several persons—most all of them men, most all of them black, and all of them poor—who were awaiting execution for crimes they may well not have committed. The specter of the unjust execution, the image that haunts the conscience of the Western tradition, has led to a renewed investigation of the justice of the death penalty as an institution.

It began where Witherspoon began, in the state of Illinois. Then-governor George Ryan (a Republican, and himself a prisoner in federal detention since 2007) ordered a ban on the death penalty that has been renewed by his Democratic successors, Pat Quinn and long-suffering Rod Blagojevich.

A World of Violence

And that is where we are today, initiating, with halting baby steps a new national discussion of the justice of the death penalty. The debate operates at two levels, as the US Supreme Court did. One set of questions concerns the pragmatics of how the death penalty is imposed. That is a procedural question best addressed in legislatures and courts of law. The second is housed in educational institutions and faith communities.

As a practical matter, close analysis does point to some disturbing trends in the way the death penalty is imposed. There is often little rhyme or reason as to why one person receives a life sentence and another receives death. While there are many more whites executed now (57% of the total since 1976), the percentage of women on death rows remains unchanged, and all such residents remain poor. No one who can afford private counsel gets the death penalty; our system simply doesn’t work that way.

And in the current economic climate, new arguments against the death penalty have begun to appear in some surprising quarters. A new argument for abolition stems from the cost of the death penalty. Capital trials are almost always longer and more expensive; there are more witnesses in general, and bifurcated trials mean you are getting two trials often for nearly twice the price. The mandatory appeals process takes years and literally costs millions of dollars, far more than it would cost to house someone in prison for life.

I used to think that a frivolous argument; I no longer do. The reason is this. Given our Constitutional commitments, we will and must have such mandatory safeguards and review; this is a good thing. Therefore, in this country, the death penalty will always be prohibitively expensive. In other countries like China, it is not. And in those settings, ironically enough, the death penalty does have a deterrent value; the deterrent value of any law has to do with the swiftness and certainty of punishment, not the severity of punishment. In the United States, the death penalty will never be either certain or swift. By contrast in China in the early 1980s, where there was no equivalent conception of civil liberty or Constitutional protection, 5000 persons arrested for highway robbery were executed en masse; robbery statistics immediately plummeted. Happily, we will never countenance that kind of death penalty in this country. And that is why the death penalty here will always be expensive, and will always be a kind of cruel and unusual lottery system.

Questions of principle are harder to resolve. One could argue that the lottery-like quality of the death penalty’s imposition is itself “cruel and unusual.” It seems unfair somehow that one would only be eligible for a death sentence if one committed a crime in Texas rather than New Jersey or Hawaii. The state of Texas has accounted for well over a third of all executions since lifting the ban in 1976 (a staggering 432, starting with James Autry, out of 1151 executions nationwide).

The difficulty in initiating a substantive discussion of the death penalty is that emotions on all sides run so high. We live in a world of violence, a world that at times seems a chamber of horrors. In just the past few months, we have witnessed fifteen persons gunned down in Germany and eleven more than that in the state of Alabama. In the face of such enormity, words break and grief can overwhelm. An impulse for vengeance, like blind rage itself, is all-too-human and all-too-understandable. Yet these are poor places from which to engage in serious deliberation over matters of great moral complexity. Recall that the death penalty was originally designed so that cool heads would prevail over vengeful rage.

On March 10, the State of Georgia executed its first death row inmate of 2009. The case was a strange one, concerning a crime committed more than 22 years ago. After an evening spent drinking Bloody Marys with his live-in girlfriend and their neighbor, Carol Sanders Beatty, Robert L. Newland drove his truck to the pier, struck a parked vehicle, then fled the scene on foot; it was 30 May 1986 on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Newland inexplicably returned to Beatty’s duplex, and when she spurned his advances, he stabbed her with a knife; Beatty died the next day, after identifying her assailant to police. Newland was convicted of with intent to commit rape, then sentenced to death.

This case and the curiously worded charges suggest one more problem: namely, the cultural embeddedness of any and every judgment about which crimes warrant death.

Once upon a time, it was the robber and the gunslinger who attracted capital attention. John Dillinger’s bullet-ridden corpse was put on public display in the 1930s. If a woman were to be executed, then she would need to be some Bonnie working with a Clyde. But these days, it is the crime of passion, especially one that links sex and violence, and especially one where a man kills a female lover or would-be lover, that elicits capital attention. It is important to recall that there was absolutely nothing premeditated in Newland’s strange and erratic behavior that evening. What there was, instead, was a crude and unsuccessful sexual advance, its inevitable rebuff, and then a drunken bout of male rage.

Consider the following recent trends here in Georgia. William Earl Lynd was executed on 6 May 2008 for kidnaping and killing his then-girlfriend. By contrast, on 23 September 2008, Troy Davis’ execution was stayed just two hours before it was scheduled, due to the admission of a significant likelihood that he did not kill the police officer he had been convicted of killing (his accusers recanted).

In short, the standards of any maturing society may not evolve, but they do change. Yet the decision of death is unchangeable.

Perhaps persons inclined to the Christian faith might join others of similar ethical interest and inclination to perform a thought experiment. What if Jesus and Socrates had not been killed? What next? What might they have said in prison? Whom might they have reached, whom convinced? When might they have been released? How might they have been reintroduced into the societies they offended? In what ways are forgiveness and reintegration the flip side of any mature system of justice?

To be sure, most Christians believe that Jesus did reach and convince others, after his rising. And most Platonists believe that Socrates also managed to reach and convince others, primarily through the record of his life and his manner of facing its end. But neither Jesus nor Socrates wrote a word; those who wrote about them were agreed that the manner in which they were killed, in both cases, was an outrageous assault on justice.

The death penalty is swift and it is certain and it is irreversible. Given certain widespread political and theological commitments regarding the inviolable moral worth of persons (imagined respectively as rights, and as sacred value), it is arguable that the death penalty requires a degree of certainty unavailable to any human system of law and moral reasoning.

This, to my mind, is the primary and the ultimate reason for us to eliminate it.

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. is William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. The author of six books, his two most recent are: God Gardened East: A Gardener’s Meditation on the Dynamics of Genesis (Wipf and Stock, 2008) and This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity (Jossey-Bass, 2008).


Death penalty -- Gov. Mark Parkinson revealed an interesting perspective on the state's death penalty when he said he would be open to re-evaluating it. As a state senator, Parkinson helped draft the law, which Kansas enacted in 1994. He said the purpose was to give murder defendants an incentive to plead guilty for a prison sentence without possibility of parole for 40 years. If the death penalty achieves that, it could be one benefit of it. But maybe it still doesn't make it good justice. Maybe it isn't entirely right to use the threat of execution to pressure a defendant into a plea bargain. This much we know: Life in prison is the best, most appropriate, conscientious -- and, apparently, cheapest -- punishment for murder. We should not need the death penalty to deliver that sentence. It should be the standard punishment, period.-- Hutchinson News

Killer is a celebrity, thanks to death row

His execution is set for Wednesday. So naturally we’re hearing a lot about how Dennis Skillicorn turned his life around while on Missouri’s death row.

Just before a court order helped him avoid lethal injection last year, we also were made aware of how he’d found God.

Which they all do. Except Skillicorn went on to start a prison ministry.

For several years, he’s been editor of a national magazine that features the work of other condemned prisoners. And he’s been involved in a prison hospice program and — well, there’s a lot more about his accomplishments and deep remorse on the Internet.

But what of Richard Drummond?

His fine points are little mentioned these days. About all we hear of him is that he was a Good Samaritan — an Excelsior Springs businessman who offered to help Skillicorn and two of his druggie pals when their car broke down on Interstate 70 one day in August 1994.

And for that kindness, Drummond, 47, was kidnapped, robbed and marched into the woods near Higginsville, Mo. It was there that one of the men, Allen Nicklasson, fired two bullets into Drummond’s brain.

This is what cuts me raw about the death penalty in this country, almost as much as the inequities of capital punishment.

The death penalty makes celebrities out of the most unrepentant killers and sympathetic characters out of those who, like Skillicorn, have managed to make something of themselves in prison.

The victims become cardboard cutouts, while the stories of the condemned are told and retold in court documents and news accounts.

And always the candlelight vigils. If Skillicorn is put to death, some will call him a martyr.

It wasn’t like this when death sentences were carried out in a matter of months. Killers were remembered only for their crimes.

No one lit candles for Charlie Starkweather.

But now it takes 12 years on average for a death sentence to be carried out, and often it’s longer.

That’s not about to change, even if states like Missouri make reforms. It’s as good an argument as any for getting rid of the death penalty.

Sentencing more killers to life without a chance of parole would recognize that people can change for the better over time. It also would ensure that they went about it in the anonymity they deserve.

Richard Drummond?

Press reports never did go into much detail about his life, except to say that he was a good husband and father.

“He loved life,” a family member said.

Prison staffers back clemency for inmate facing death

Tony Rizzo |

last updated: May 17, 2009 02:06:20 PM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ “I know he’s not the same man who came into prison,” said Bill Henry, a volunteer who has worked with Skillicorn for years in a Christian-based group. “The good things he’s done you can’t even count.”

For Skillicorn, prison deeds are all he can do to make amends for a life of crime.

“If I had three lifetimes, I know I can’t repay society for the things I’ve done,” he said in a recent phone interview. “But I think we have a responsibility to build up what we once tore down with our criminal behavior.”

Regardless of who he is now, or what he once was, the 49-year-old former Kansas City resident is in line to be the first Missouri inmate put to death since 2005.

Barring court intercession or a grant of clemency from Gov. Jay Nixon, at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, an execution team will bind Skillicorn with sturdy leather straps and inject chemicals that will paralyze his breathing and stop his heart.

He would die having never taken a life with his own hands.

But he participated in a 1994 crime spree that horrified many, spurred a national manhunt and left three bodies in two states — all innocent victims shot to death by an accomplice who may outlive Skillicorn as a resident of Missouri’s death row.

Their first victim that summer was Richard Drummond, a 47-year-old father of three girls whose act of kindness toward strangers stranded on the side of a mid-Missouri road was paid back with two bullets in the head.

Read the complete story at For that, Skillicorn, and his accomplice, Allen Nicklasson, were sentenced to death.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Larry Drummond, one of Richard Drummond’s three older brothers, who said he considers both men equally deserving of execution.

“I think they’re both guilty. They knew what they were doing.”

As a child, Skillicorn had two ambitions.

He wanted to be a nurse. And he wanted to play the guitar.

Standing in front of the television, he would grab an old tennis racket and imitate the musicians he saw.

He was about 12 when his mother died and his father bought him his first guitar.

His teen years brought with them a new hobby — drugs.

Skillicorn started getting in trouble when he was about 14, and his crimes escalated and he dropped out of school, said his brother, Charles Skillicorn, who is a year younger. Charles said he and his friends tried to encourage Dennis to spend time with them, but he kept gravitating toward the neighborhood troublemakers.

One day Dennis Skillicorn traded his guitar for a bag of marijuana. He also stole to support his drug habit.

On Dec. 2, 1979, he and two other young burglars from the Northeast area of Kansas City confronted an 81-year-old rural Jackson County farmer named Wendell Howell at his home.

They forced him to lie face down on a living room couch. One held a shotgun to his head while the others looted the home for valuables.

When they were done, the gunman told his partners to wait outside. Skillicorn and the other man later said they were waiting in the car when their co-defendant fired a blast into Howell’s head.

Prosecutors tried Skillicorn, then 20, for capital murder. But after seven hours of deliberations, a Jackson County jury found him guilty of second-degree murder instead. He got a 35-year prison sentence.

Authorities paroled him in 1992. He soon fell back into his drug and criminal ways.

By the summer of 1994, Skillicorn was running with Nicklasson, a 22-year-old hotheaded hoodlum who shared his taste for illegal drugs, including crystal meth.

On Aug. 23, they talked a teenage acquaintance, Tim DeGraffenreid of Blue Springs, into driving them to central Missouri to get drugs. When the car broke down, they burglarized a house, stealing, among other things, a .22-caliber pistol.

The car was repaired, but it broke down again the next day.

Drummond, a supervisor for AT&T, was driving by on a business trip to Kingdom City when he pulled over to see if he could help. He agreed to give them a ride to a pay phone. The trio piled into his car, lugging some loot from the burglarized house.

From the back seat, Nicklasson put a pistol to Drummond’s head and told him to keep driving.

For about 90 minutes, as they debated what to do, they forced Drummond to drive west with a gun pointed at his head.

In Lafayette County, they ordered him off the highway and into the countryside, where they found a secluded spot. Skillicorn took Drummond’s wallet and waited at the car.

Nicklasson marched Drummond toward a stand of trees, where he ordered his captive to kneel and pray. Then he fired two shots from the .22 into Drummond’s head.

Skillicorn and Nicklasson dropped off DeGraffenreid in Blue Springs, where the teen went into hiding at a motel. They headed west in Drummond’s car.

Three days later, along a desolate stretch of desert in western Arizona, they drove off the highway to rest. The car bogged down in the soft sand of a dry creek bed. Unable to free it, they hiked to the nearby home of Joe and Charlene Babcock. Joe Babcock offered to pull them out.

As Babcock kneeled and attempted to scoop sand from around the car’s tires, Nicklasson pumped four bullets into his head.

They returned to the house and confronted Charlene Babcock, who fought for her life before Nicklasson shot her too.

They fled in the Babcocks’ vehicle.

Back in the Kansas City area, Drummond’s family fretted. Days passed without word from the Excelsior Springs resident. Their fears intensified after authorities found his car in Arizona near two murder victims.

A week after Drummond vanished, police acting on a tip found the 17-year-old DeGraffenreid in Blue Springs. The next day, he led them to Drummond’s body.

By then, authorities had launched a cross-country manhunt for Skillicorn and Nicklasson.

The tense weeks-long search ended quietly 42 days after Drummond’s death.

A police officer saw the fugitives hitchhiking with a third man in San Diego. Nicklasson gave a fake name but provided his real Social Security number, which got him arrested. Skillicorn, who didn’t make the same mistake, was let go.

The next day, less than 20 miles away, a motorist saw Skillicorn hitchhiking alone, recognized him from news coverage and called police. Skillicorn submitted peacefully when officers converged on him.

In the aftermath, DeGraffenreid pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He remains incarcerated.

Tried separately, Skillicorn and Nicklasson each received sentences of death.

Skillicorn has maintained that he thought they were going to strand Drummond in the country long enough for them to get back to Kansas City. He says he didn’t know that Nicklasson was going to kill him.

To this day, Skillicorn says he doesn’t understand why Nicklasson shot Drummond.

“He can’t even tell you why he did it,” Skillicorn said.

Skillicorn never has denied his part in robbing Drummond and said that, regardless of his involvement, he feels remorse.

“I think about Mr. Drummond’s family every day,” he said. “I’m well aware of the fact, or as aware as I can be, of how devastating it must have been.”

In jail awaiting trial, Skillicorn found himself drug-free for the first time in many years. He also discovered literature from Set Free Ministries, a Bible study correspondence program for prisoners.

It began a new journey.

After entering prison, Skillicorn volunteered to help with the ministry program. Sober, he discovered talents like writing, speaking and leading. He started finding fulfillment from something other than drugs.

“Making a difference is a high in itself,” he said.

He fell in love with a woman interviewing him for a possible book. He married the former Kansas City Star reporter, who had left the paper after covering his trial, and became stepfather to her son.

He has continued his work with Set Free Ministries and even picked up the guitar again, playing it during worship services. He has helped set up and run a program to help incarcerated men and their children develop closer relationships. He volunteers in a hospice program to comfort terminally ill prisoners.

A book he edited, “Today’s Choices Affect Tomorrow’s Dreams,” contains essays, poems and artwork by him and other inmates on death rows across the country. It is provided free to juvenile detention facilities to give at-risk youths a firsthand understanding of what can happen if they succumb to bad choices made by men like Skillicorn.

“There’s no way I can bring Mr. Drummond back,” he said. “But I might be able to prevent some other family from being in the same situation as the Drummond family.”

He has been working on a follow-up book and hopes that someone else will complete it if he can’t.

The books are an offshoot of “Compassion,” a bimonthly newsletter edited by Skillicorn that features similar works. It has raised thousands of dollars in scholarship money for relatives of murder victims.

Those efforts are indicative of how Skillicorn has spent his time in prison, according to some former and current employees of the Potosi Correctional Center, where Skillicorn lived until recently.

About 12 current and former prison staffers gave statements for his clemency petition.

Their efforts were joined last week by Rep. Steven Tilley, the majority leader of the Missouri House, who called on Nixon to commute Skillicorn’s sentence to life in prison.

By helping other inmates turn their lives around, Skillicorn is helping make communities safer, his supporters say.

“I don’t condone what he did and I’m not asking that he be put out on the street,” said Sam Finley, a prison volunteer. “I just want to see him stay alive so he can be a positive influence for our society.”

Skillicorn says none of his work was done to save his life.

“I’ve never known of a person to get off death row for doing good things,” he said. “I’ve never been under that delusion whatsoever. I’ve simply done what I’ve done because it’s the right thing to do.”