Friday, 31 July 2009

The Nation: Beer And Sympathy

Taxi drivers provide a perverse service to the racial conversation when they refuse to pick up black people. Clearly it would be better if they stopped, so that we wouldn't be left hailing the night air like fools or relying on white friends to sneak one past the censor like supplicants.

But if anyone is going to experience racial hardship, let it be the cab riders. For if you can afford to take a cab, then it is probably not a bad thing to be reminded that racism brooks no exceptions—up to and including the ability to pay. Racism discriminates against people on the grounds of race. Just like it says on the packet. It can be as arbitrary in its choice of victim as it is systemic in its execution. And while it never works alone (but rather in cahoots with class, gender and a host of other rogue characters), it has political license to operate independently.

It's a basic lesson at relatively low cost. And yet the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggests we are doomed to keep repeating the lesson. Barack Obama was right when he referred to the arrest as a "teachable moment," but given the brouhaha that has followed, it seems that even a moment involving the nation's most prominent black intellectual teaches us nothing.

This lesson should come in two parts.

First, all such tales attempt to stage racism as a crude morality play, with individuals as absolute victims and absolute villains, rather than as a system of oppression that works primarily through institutions. The victim must have no priors and no drugs. And unless the perpetrator is photographed with a billy club in hand and uses racial slurs that are recorded on tape, we are supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt.

For an individual, that is fair. For a system, it is farcical. While it may be intriguing to speculate about what two people may or may not have been thinking, feeling and intending at any given moment, the proof of racism is in the odds. Black people in America fall foul of not just the law of the land but the law of probabilities as well. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and executed. A ridiculous black man and a ridiculous white man do not stand the same chances when put before a man with a badge, gun or gavel. The figures bear this out, and at the end of the day, nooses and burning crosses shouldn't be necessary to demonstrate racism's reach.

Second, the fact that racism might affect a Harvard professor is amazing only if one buys into the idea that black people who have reached a certain status should be exempt from racism. If you believe that, then the problem with Gates's arrest is not racism. It's that he was treated like a regular black person. The issue moves from "If it happened to him it really can happen to anybody" to "It shouldn't have happened to him because he is a somebody."

Which brings us back to Obama, who first said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly," only to then "recalibrate" his remarks before inviting the arresting officer, James Crowley, and Gates to the White House for beers and reconciliation. This was primarily remarkable because, for reasons both pragmatic and strategic, Obama's interventions in matters of race are so very rare.

So it is curious that he would use the considerable influence he has in this area to defend a tenured Harvard professor who was detained for a few hours. Indeed, the only other public pronouncement Obama has made about race since his election was delivered just a week before Gates's arrest, at the NAACP conference. On the organization's centenary he paid homage to the civil rights movement and, recognizing the inequalities bequeathed by segregation, he started talking about parenting.

"We've got to say to our children, Yes, if you're African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher," Obama said. "Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that's not a reason to get bad grades. That's not a reason to cut class.... No one has written your destiny for you.... That's what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses."

These two interventions feel like the Talented Tenth circling the wagons. There are a huge number of explanations for black underachievement in this country, none of which are merely "excuses." But Gates's experience also gave the lie to Obama's exhortations. Gates got good grades, probably never cut school and does not live amid crime and gangs. If he had, the incident might have ended up in anything from a police record to his death while never even making the local paper. Not that Gates didn't have a legitimate grievance. But he probably could have handled the matter without the help of the commander in chief.

The same cannot be said for, say, Troy Davis, who sits on death row in Georgia for the murder of an off-duty police officer, which he insists he did not commit. Seven of the nine witnesses who identified Davis have recanted or contradicted their original testimony, which they claim was made under police coercion. One of the remaining two is also a suspect in the crime. Desmond Tutu, the pope and Jimmy Carter (all conspicuously silent on the Gates saga) have called for a new trial or evidentiary hearing. This is a matter where Obama's involvement could tip the balance between life and death.

As I write, the beers are in the presidential fridge. After their drink, Gates will go back to Harvard, Crowley will return to the force, Obama will stay in the White House. Nothing about law or race, not even the national conversation, will have changed. And Troy Davis will remain on death row. For now the only beer he can expect will be with his last meal. And he will be drinking alone.


Thursday, 30 July 2009

Troy Davis, A Man Without a Voice, Speaks for Too Many

There is an entire group of citizens in the United States who are largely ignored by liberals and conservatives alike. They are the people on Death Row whose guilt contains "reasonable doubt." For better or for worse, Mr. Troy Anthony Davis is their poster child.

Mr. Davis' case is well known -- accused of killing a police officer based solely on nine eyewitness accounts where seven have recanted (unprompted), conviction within four days, and no DNA or any physical evidence found at all. His case has brought together the unlikely, both proponents and opponents of the death penalty, and inspired a NAACP-sponsored campaign,, that includes National Days for Troy Davis around the world. But who is Troy Davis? Who is this man, who has stirred many to action, yet is unable to speak to directly to the media himself? And how can all of us come to see his plight as our own?

I could use the many adjectives one does when describing someone special such as kind, faithful, friendly, etc. ... yet this would hardly be enough. The best way to introduce you to Mr. Davis is by recounting the time my sister and I visited him in a Jackson, Georgia prison. My sister and I are staunch advocates against the death penalty and his case exemplifies why. Through written correspondence, we realized that we wanted to meet the man who had inspired us and our family members to go to rallies and vigils on his behalf.

Meeting Troy was like seeing your child run out of the front door of school on their first-ever day there. Even between the two sets of locked bars, we could see his smile light up the room and his eyes say "Thank you for visiting." We saw the staff and other inmates interact with him almost as if he were family, and it was evident that they all liked him.

What was most remarkable about the visitation was its lack of being "remarkable." There were no awkward silences, no uncomfortable moments of "What do I say? What do I do?" It was like meeting a childhood friend; reconnecting as if time had stood still. Never did we feel as though we were visiting Death Row. Never did we feel that we were in the company of a man who was accused of killing someone or who had faced--and avoided--execution three times. There were others in the same room who we could not say the same, but Mr. Davis, he was different.

We spoke for hours on matters of his case and about our family, husbands, and employment. He was far more interested in finding out about our lives than in discussing his own situation. Oddly enough, he had such a serenity about his circumstances, trusting in our legal system, his supporters and his God.

He expressed sorrow for the officer's death, felt no malice towards those who wished him dead and questioned the toll it was all taking on his family. When we asked him how he was feeling, he said, "I am often surprised by the fact that I am not depressed or have never lost faith in my being set free. I have never felt imprisoned in my mind and because of that, I always remain hopeful. God has gotten me this far, He will carry me through, regardless of the outcome." It was here that I saw true faith: not found in prison, but a faith rooted in childhood. He lived it daily. He walks it out as opposed to speaking it out. His soft-spoken manner would have it no other way.

Mr. Davis humbly carries the torch for those in similar circumstances. He is mindful of his behavior and because of this, the only time he expressed any displeasure was when he spoke of being misrepresented: on execution days, Mr. Davis does not "refuse a meal," instead he is fasting.

I ask you to join me in speaking out on behalf of Troy Davis, and to pass the message along to your friends. We will ask the justice system to reopen his case to prove his innocence, or disprove it. Right now, too many questions still remain. Please join the I am Troy Davis campaign so that one day we can ensure that no one is sentenced to die when their guilt is uncertain. It is a legacy our children deserve. I am Troy Davis. I am Troy Davis.


Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Uphold the rule of law on torture

According to the Washington Post and recent articles in Newsweek the Attorney General is on the verge of making a decision on the appointment of a special prosecutor. We need for Holder to follow the facts and support the establishment of a commission of inquiry to look into the facts and the alleged abused associated with counterterrorism policies in the war on terror.

Tell your member of Congress to forward this open letter to Attorney General Holder asking him to commit to establishing an independent commission on torture.

» Background Information

Download the printable version PDF | RTF


Texas Reform Creates Office for Capital Appeals

A new law in Texas will create a state o to handle the appeals of death row inmates. The office was created in response to a series of well publicized scandals which brought international attention to the subpar representation of capital offense appeals. Texas, unlike other states with capital punishment, had not used the public defender's office to handle the habeus corpus writs for their capital offenders, but instead had hired outside attorneys who often missed deadlines or wrote "skeletal writs". The new office will have a budget of a million dollars and a staff of nine, but its services will not be available to those capital inmates who have already used up their appeals. The Office of Capital Writs is expected to handle approximately ten appeals a year.

The Houston Chronicle: State to handle capital appeals


Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Texas reporter's seen unrivaled number of U.S. executions

(CNN) -- It takes seven minutes to execute a death row inmate, according to the state of Texas.

Mike Graczyk poses outside the Texas death chamber prior to an execution in January.

At that rate, Mike Graczyk has spent about 40 hours of his life watching men -- and a few women -- die.

Graczyk, a correspondent for The Associated Press, is believed to hold a macabre record. He's almost certainly watched more executions than anyone else in the United States.

"I can't possibly imagine there's been someone present at more than Mike," said Michelle Lyons, the spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which uses lethal injection at its execution chamber in Huntsville.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, no state has executed more inmates than Texas. And no one has witnessed more of them than Graczyk.

He's on the witness list for 315 of the state's 439 executions -- more than any other reporter, prison employee or chaplain -- and no records were kept for another 80.

In his early days, he kept count. But he eventually stopped. He didn't want to know.

"In one circle, I was perceived as putting notches on my gun belt," the 59-year-old reporter said. "I didn't like that."

Prison regulations in Texas require The Associated Press to be given one of the five designated media witness passes for each execution.

Texas execution facts

Texas executions since death penalty was reinstated:

Cost per execution for drugs used : $86.08

Average time on death row before execution: 10.26 years

Youngest inmate executed:
Three at 24

Oldest inmate executed: 66

Women executed:

Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Graczyk works in the AP's Houston bureau -- it's closest to the state's execution chamber in Huntsville. Since the early 1980s, he's made the hourlong drive north almost every time an inmate has faced the needle.

The first was March 13, 1984, for the execution of James "Cowboy" Autry, convicted of shooting a female store clerk between the eyes with a .38-caliber revolver while arguing over a six-pack of beer.

She died, along with a former Catholic priest that Autry killed at the crime scene.

"The first time definitely leaves an impression on you," Graczyk said.

There are others that stand out along the way.

Graczyk remembers Bob Black, convicted of killing his wife and trying to collect the insurance money.

"I walked into the death house, and he was strapped to the table and he said, 'Hey Mike, how are you doing?' It threw me for a loop."

Graczyk said it's normal for him to know the name of the condemned and not uncommon for the reverse to be true. There have been others who greeted Graczyk by name with a needle in their arm.

Once, while waiting to be let into the death house, a prisoner phoned him in the media holding area.

It was the inmate whose execution Graczyk was about to witness.

"He said, 'I just wanted to call and make sure you were OK.' I was flabbergasted."

Don't Miss

Over the years, the inmate's name has slipped from Graczyk's memory, but not the unexpected phone conversation.

"I don't think he had any family to call," he said.

There was Ponchai Wilkerson, who once nearly escaped from death row and, years later, coughed up a handcuff key as he lay dying from his injection.

There was the "Candy Man," Ronald Clark O'Bryan -- convicted of poisoning his child's Halloween candy with cyanide -- and the gauntlet of college students wearing Halloween masks who showed up to cheer.

And Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the 1800s. He remembers a network correspondent crying after her death -- and another blow-drying his hair.

Of the entire death chamber ritual, Graczyk said, it's the final statements that stick in his mind. Some have been confessions. Others were denials.

Poetry. Prayers. Bible verses. Curses. Emotions ranging from defiance to resignation.

There was Jonathan Nobles, an electrician who stabbed two people to death. He sang "Silent Night."

"Ever since then, I think of him on Christmas or Christmas Eve when I'm in church," Graczyk said. "That's the kind of thing that haunts you."

The person who may come closest to Graczyk's status also felt things that haunted him.

Don Reid, a writer for the AP and, before that, a Texas newspaper, witnessed 189 executions in the 1960s, when Texas still strapped inmates to "Old Sparky," the nickname for the state's electric chair.

The experience changed Reid, who died in 1981, from a supporter of the death penalty to an opponent. He wrote a book, "Have a Seat, Please," chronicling that transformation.

Graczyk said he doesn't worry about the mental toll of watching so many deaths. His bosses with the AP have offered counseling. He's declined.

"To see someone go to sleep -- not to sound insensitive -- but the carnage at the murder scene is harder than what you see in the death house in Huntsville," he said.

Over a 25-year career, Graczyk said, the executions have only been a small portion of his work. He finds balance in those other stories.

As a journalist, Graczyk never answers the question when friends ask his own views on the death penalty.

"I'm not sure I really know," he said.

But as long as Texas keeps executing people, Graczyk said, it's important that he keep showing up.

The next execution in Huntsville was scheduled for Thursday before the condemned, convicted murderer Kenneth Mosley, was granted a reprieve until September.

If the execution goes ahead then, Graczyk plans to make the drive. "I would hate for the state of Texas to take someone's life and no one be there," he said.


Monday, 20 July 2009

State Commissions Seek to Prevent Wrongful Convictions

(July 20, 2009) Newly created innocence commissions in New York and Texas will join a growing list of state commissions working to prevent future injustice by learning from previous mistakes. Both states have high numbers of wrongful convictions; 38 Texans and 24 New York State residents have been proven innocent through DNA testing after serving years or decades in prison.

Six other states — California, Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Connecticut — have already established Innocence Commissions, also known as Criminal Justice Reform Commissions. Some of these state groups have already begun to recommend and help implement polices that improve eyewitness identification, reduce the prevalence of false confessions, establish statewide forensic oversight and more.

The Illinois Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment issued 85 recommendations, all of which passed the Legislature in 2003. Since then, Illinois has created a second commission that will review wrongful convictions in non-capital DNA exoneration cases and submit a report by the end of 2010. The North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission’s recommendations for improvements to eyewitness identification procedures have been adopted as law and are now mandated statewide. In Wisconsin, the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Reform Package led to improvements in the preservation of biological evidence, more reliable eyewitness identification procedures and requirements that law enforcement agencies record custodial interrogations.

Like other innocence commissions, the newly formed New York Justice Task Force is comprised of a range of criminal justice stakeholders—judges, legislators, law enforcement officials and others—that will recommend changes to police and court procedures as well as training for lawyers, jurists and police. Unlike other innocence commissions, the Justice Task Force will be a permanent entity that will also monitor how the recommended reforms are working after they are implemented.

The Justice Task Force will build on the work of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) Task Force, which submitted its final report in April with proposals regarding evidence preservation, jailhouse informant testimony, eyewitness identification procedures, compensation for the wrongfully convicted and more. The group heard testimony from Innocence Project Co-Directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld as well as a number of people who have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.

Also this year, the Texas Legislature passed a bill establishing the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, named for a man who was posthumously exonerated through DNA testing. The panel will assist the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, a pre-existing group, in conducting a study on the prevention of wrongful convictions in the state. The commission will submit a report at the beginning of 2011. Meanwhile, the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, formed by the state Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008, and comprised of members such as District Attorney Craig Watkins and Senator Rodney Ellis, is looking broadly at improving the state criminal justice system through education, training and legislative reform.

Through the work of these commissions, these eight states have become national leaders in criminal justice reform. Other recent efforts to form commissions have been initiated in Arizona, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee, among others.

Click here to learn about each state commission on our interactive map. If your state doesn’t have a commission, urge your representatives to create one.

Source (The Innocent Project)

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Is it time to put the brakes on Alabama's death penalty?

Posted by Joey Kennedy -- Birmingham News April 20, 2009 3:00 AM

What do we gain when we execute people? I supposed there's a feeling of justice. A person committed a brutal murder and we take his life in return. Eye for an eye, and such. Or maybe it's revenge for the victim's family, but does killing another make it all better? Or maybe we've deluded ourselves into thinking we're protecting society, though our prisons are pretty good at keeping people locked up and preventing them from messing with society.
No question that the way our death penalty is applied, we risk executing an innocent person or, at the very least, a nondeserving person. Too many people are satisfied that the risk is worth it, as long as we can give the ultimate punishment to the really bad guys. How did we get here?

This week's Views poll is an attempt to gauge how Alabamians feel about the death penalty as it's currently applied in Alabama. Voting continues through Thursday, and the results, along with a selection of comments, will be published in Sunday's Viewpoints section. Vote now:

Thursday, 16 July 2009

As More States Weigh Improving Lineups, New Innocence Project Report Shows Extent of the Problem and Effectiveness of Reform

75% of wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing involve eyewitness misidentification; 17 states in last two years have considered reforms

(New York, NY; July 16, 2009) —A report released today by the Innocence Project shows that while eyewitness identification is among the most prevalent and persuasive evidence used in courtrooms, it is not error-proof and is the leading cause of wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA testing.

The report comes as 17 states have considered legislation in the last two years to improve lineups. So far, nine states have taken action to prevent eyewitness misidentification, and the Innocence Project said it will focus on implementing reforms over the next year in 10 states, including New York, Texas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio, Michigan and Rhode Island.

Titled “Reevaluating Lineups: Why Witnesses Make Mistakes and How to Reduce the Chance of a Misidentification,” the report lays out the overview of eyewitness misidentification and problems with traditional eyewitness identification procedures. It explains how to minimize the possibility of misidentification and outlines criminal justice reforms that are proven to reduce inaccurate eyewitness identifications.

“There is a growing understanding nationwide that eyewitness identification is often unreliable, and that simple reforms can reduce misidentifications,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This reports shows the extent of the problem, explains why eyewitnesses sometimes identify the wrong person, and outlines how police practices can be improved to result in more reliable evidence. The consequences of not improving lineups are stark: Investigations get derailed early in the process, and true perpetrators of crime remain free to commit additional violent crimes while innocent people are incarcerated.”

A series of reforms that are proven to reduce misidentifications have been developed by leading social scientists, endorsed by criminal justice organizations and successfully implemented in the field. The reforms include: double-blind presentation (photos or lineup members are presented by an administrator who does not know who the suspect is); lineup composition (the non-suspects included in a lineup resemble the eyewitness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect should not stand out); witness instructions (the person viewing a lineup is told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup but the investigation will continue regardless); confidence statements (at the time of identification, the eyewitness provides a statement in her own words indicating a level of confidence in the identification); recording of identification procedures (the identification is videotaped entirely); and sequential presentation (lineup members are presented one-by-one instead of side-by-side; because research is ongoing on this reform, the Innocence Project recommends it as an optional addition to the reforms above).

“Several states, cities and towns have already adopted the reforms and found them to be cost-effective and easily implemented,” the report found. “The benefits are extensive and include reinforcing the integrity of reliable identifications as well as reducing the rate of misidentifications.”

States that have taken steps to improve eyewitness identification through legislation include: New Jersey and North Carolina, which mandate blind-sequential policies; Georgia, which has statewide training; West Virginia, which mandates the use of certain reforms proven to increase the accuracy of eyewitness identifications; Vermont, which established a task force to explore and recommend enhanced eyewitness identification protocols; Maryland and Wisconsin, which require all jurisdictions statewide to enact written policies regarding the use of eyewitness identification procedures; Connecticut, which directed its Advisory Commission on Wrongful Convictions to monitor and evaluate implementation of double-blind administration of lineup procedures; and Virginia, where the Crime Commission studied misidentification cases and recommended improvements to eyewitness identification procedures including training and sequential presentation.

Disappointingly, there are no consistent standards for identification procedures from state to state or even from one police department to the next. Many police departments don’t even have a written policy, which often leads to inconsistency within a single station.

“We know from social science research and real-world experience that these reforms work. We’re looking forward to working with police and policymakers in several key states over the next year to help them understand the need to improve lineups and the benefits of these reforms,” Saloom said. “Victims are denied justice, innocent defendants are sent to prison and the public’s safety is at risk when real perpetrators go undetected.”

The findings in “Reevaluating Lineups: Why Witnesses Make Mistakes and How to Reduce the Chance of a Misidentification,” released today, include:

• 240 people, serving an average of 12 years in prison, have been exonerated through DNA testing in the United States, and 75% of those wrongful convictions (179 individual cases as of this report) involved eyewitness misidentification.

• In 38% of the misidentification cases, multiple eyewitnesses misidentified the same innocent person.

• Over 250 witnesses misidentified innocent suspects.

• 53% percent of the misidentification cases (among those where race is known) involved cross-racial misidentifications.

• In 50% of the misidentifications cases, eyewitness testimony was the central evidence used against the defendant (without other corroborating evidence like confessions, forensic science or informant testimony).

• In 36% of the misidentification cases, the real perpetrator was identified through DNA evidence.

• In at least 48% of the misidentification cases where a real perpetrator was later identified though DNA testing, that perpetrator went on to commit (and was convicted of) additional violent crimes (rape, murder, attempted murder, etc.) after an innocent person was serving time in prison for his previous crime.


Tuesday, 7 July 2009

'Emotional rollercoaster' of an executioner

By JAMES ELLIS - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Burl Cain, 67, is warden of the tough Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. Some 90 per cent of inmates die while incarcerated, thanks to the length of their sentences. Since Cain became warden in 1995, violence among inmates is down 73 per cent.

Tell us about Angola.
If you come in the front gate, go to the left and drive all the way down to the Mississippi River, over the hills and back to the front gate, you would drive 22miles (35km). This prison is as big as Manhattan. I have 5,260 inmates and the only sentences we have are rape, murder, armed robbery and habitual ‘three strikes and you’re out’ felons. Some 3,700 of them are serving life, the average sentence for the others is 93 years. This is hardcore but since I’ve been here, violence has fallen by 73 per cent. It’s not down to me, though, it’s down to God and the Bible College we set up.

How tough was taking over?
I lived 30 miles away and I would drive past at speed as there was constant unrest, bloodshed and violence. I prayed to the good Lord to help me change it. I did not want this job: anyone who took it got fired after five years. I told them they had to pay me an enormous amount of money and they did. Then I said I would take it temporarily and they said fine. After I was here a while, I had an execution to do and I did it wrong. I did not have much concern for the man. After, I looked at him dead on the table and I said: ‘What have you done to this guy?’ It caused me a lot of grief. I talked to the preacher the next morning and I realised I could do it better, that I could still have compassion and, if it has to happen, it should be done with more dignity than I allowed that man. Then I thought about the victim of the crime he committed. If one who was released went out and committed a crime again, I would have failed and that drove me on. ‘Correction’ is to correct deviant behaviour, so if I could teach inmates to read and write and have a trade and a moral component, then someone could get out of jail and make a living.

Some 90 per cent of your inmates die in prison. Once ‘corrected’, why not let them back into society?
We probably should. Prison should be a place for predators, not dying old men. But you also still have to remember the victim, they drive the wagon. If they are afraid and believe someone is going to kill again, then that is not right. But that also means we should do a better job of inmate-victim reconciliation, which is what I’m trying to work on now.

How many executions have you presided over and does it get easier?
Six and no. Here’s the deal. It’s the law of the land and I just keep the key. If I did not do it, someone else would. You run a quagmire of confusion if you try to deal with it. You have to deal with the victims, they are here at the time of the execution and they want him dead. His family is here too and they love him and want a stay of execution. You go from one side talking to the victim’s family to talking to the inmate’s. It’s an emotional roller coaster and for your own sanity you have to remember it is the law that drives it and you follow the law.

You have been accused of sanctioning one religion over others?
I am looking for morality and you tend to find that in religion, so it doesn’t matter what religion you are so long as you are a moral person. What I want you to do is be good and not hurt someone if you do get out of jail again. I am a Christian but what someone else believes in is their business.

Your favourite prison movie – Cool Hand Luke or The Shawshank Redemption?
The warden in Cool Hand Luke reminds me of me. At one point he says: ‘We have a failure to communicate,’ and that often happens in prison. I can relate to that. We want to be good but don’t forget we are doing time as well. We spoke to Burl Cain while he was in Britain as a guest speaker of Winning Entrepreneurs.

‘Strange Fruit’ describes horrors of lynchings

By Dolores Cox
Harlem, N.Y.
Published Jul 3, 2009 10:12 PM
June is Black Music Month, proclaimed so by former President Jimmy Carter. In honor of Black Music Month, there was a film series showing in New York at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture based in Harlem.

One of the films, “Strange Fruit,” is the first documentary exploring the history and legacy of the famous Black singer, Billie Holiday, who popularized the song “Strange Fruit.” The song tells a dramatic story of the U.S.’s grim past. “Strange Fruit” is a protest song highlighting the thousands of rampant racist lynchings of African Americans in the South. It was originally performed by Holiday in the first integrated New York City nightclub, Cafe Society, in 1939.

The profound lyrics are: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots. Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South. The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh; and the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck. For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck. For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop. Here is the strange and bitter crop.”

“Strange Fruit” was banned from radio airways as being too radical, and turned down by record companies because they did not want to offend white Southern customers. During the many decades of terrorism against Black people by white extremists the lynchings were brought to the public’s attention by the NAACP, Black newspaper editor and activist Ida B. Wells, the Communist Party USA, union leader A. Philip Randolph and other civil rights activists. A federal anti-lynching bill was also introduced in the U.S. Congress. However, it was successfully filibustered and permanently defeated by white Southern members of Congress.

The song was published in the 1930s in “N.Y. Teacher,” a union magazine. The music and lyrics were written by a Jewish poet named Abel Meeropol. He was inspired to write it after seeing a photo of several Black men hanging from a tree with a cheering white crowd below them. He wrote it under the name of Lewis Allan.

Meeropol was a New York high school teacher, an active union member and Communist Party member. He was among the numerous people interrogated by the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy-era witch hunts.

The 2002 documentary contains file footage of the thousands of Communist Party members, unions and other activist groups who took to the streets of New York marching against racism and for workers’ rights during the 1900s. It also shows file footage of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, which revived the song. And it contains interviews of past and present human rights activists.

The songwriter died in 1968, and “Strange Fruit” was played at his funeral.

Robert and Michael Rosenberg were the adopted children of Abel Meeropol and Ann Meeropol. Their parents were Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg, Jewish-American communists found guilty of providing secret atomic bomb information to the Soviet Union. They were executed in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1953. They were the only two U.S. citizens executed for espionage during the Cold War; the case against them was built on an anti-Semitic Red Scare campaign. Despite worldwide protests against this legal lynching, President Dwight Eisenhower refused to stay their execution.

The Black historian, writer and activist Elombe Brath, in a 1995 N.Y. Amsterdam News newspaper article, described “Strange Fruit” as “Capitalism’s bitter crop.” ν

Face-to-face with death row inmates at London show

By Julie Mollins

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Death row inmates depicted in oil paintings by British artist Claire Phillips, on view in London's South Bank gallery@oxo, have one thing in common.

"All are demonstrably innocent, or very probably innocent," according to Clive Stafford Smith, director of prisoners' rights organization Reprieve, which sponsors the touring five-day "Human Face of Death Row" exhibit on show at Oxo until July 5.

"They are very powerless people who face an incredible distillation of hatred resulting in society wanting them dead."

Among the paintings of three current inmates is Briton Linda Carty, who has been on death row in Texas for eight years for murdering a neighbor. Her case is in the final stage of the appeals process.

The prosecution's case was based on testimony from three people accused of the same murder who, in exchange for statements against Carty, avoided the death penalty, according to Reprieve.

The four-hour visit Phillips had with Carty was held under armed guard.

"They will be executing her soon," Phillips said of the experience.

"It's very different in each visit -- Linda just chatted away and ate the five rice krispie bars and a cherry coke I took her."

Phillips, originally from Hammersmith in London, was not permitted to take any painting tools with her when she visited the inmates, so created the portraits from memory and other sources.

The exhibition also includes images of three former death row inmates who were freed after serving prison terms, along with an executioner; a legislator who introduced lethal injection and a foreperson on a jury that convicted and sentenced a man to death who was later found to be innocent.

"All the black people are on death row and all the white people are in positions of authority," Phillips said of her portraits.

"I didn't intend to become a campaigner," she added. "As an artist I wanted to communicate their stories.

"I've achieved putting the stories together. Make your mind up -- is this system the way to go?"

Reprieve founder and lawyer Stafford Smith is also featured in one of the paintings.

Phillips selected him as a subject because she was intrigued by him as someone "who had all the advantages of a public school education and yet had chosen to ignore the attractions of wealth and materialism in order to defend the powerless and vulnerable."

Originally from the U.S., Stafford Smith has worked on getting due process for Guantanamo inmates since 2004, as well as death penalty cases.

"As much as in the old days we would sacrifice an animal to God to solve our problems, today we take the life of a human being," Stafford Smith said, adding that politics of fear and hatred fuel the urge to invoke the death penalty.

(Editing by Steve Addison)

Declaration by the Presidency on behalf of the EU on the formal abolition of the death penalty in Togo

The EU welcomes the unanimous decision of the National Assembly of Togo on 23 June 2009 to abolish the death penalty for all crimes and to commute existing death sentences into life sentences. We congratulate the Togolese Parliament, the Togolese Government and the Togolese people on this important decision.

The Member States of the European Union consider that the abolition of capital punishment contributes to the enhancement of human dignity. The European Union reaffirms its objective of working towards universal abolition of the death penalty. It believes that abolition by Togo is an important step towards that aim and hopes that this decision will encourage other countries in the region to follow suit.

The Candidate Countries Turkey, Croatia* and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*, the Countries of the Stabilisation and Association Process and potential candidates Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and the EFTA countries Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, members of the European Economic Area, as well as Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia align themselves with this declaration.

* Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia continue to be part of the Stabilisation and Association Process.

Death Penalty and Mental Illness: Families of Victims Speak out at National Convention; 'Double Tragedies' Report Released

SAN FRANCISCO, July 6 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- For the first time, families of murder victims have joined with families of persons with mental illness who have been executed to speak out against the death penalty.

Double Tragedies, a report being released today at a special session on the first day of the annual convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), calls the death penalty "inappropriate and unwarranted" for people with severe mental disorders and "a distraction from problems within the mental health system that contributed or even directly led to tragic violence."

The report calls for treatment and prevention, not execution. It is available online at www./

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in cases involving defendants with mental retardation (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and juvenile defendants (Roper v. Simmons 2005).

The report, a joint project of NAMI and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), is based on extensive interviews with 21 family members from 10 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

"Family opposition to the death penalty is grounded in personal tragedy," said MVFHR executive director Renny Cushing. "In the public debate about the death penalty and how to respond in the aftermath of violent crime, these are the voices that need to be heard."

"Most people with mental illness are not violent," said NAMI executive director Mike Fitzpatrick. "When violent tragedies occur they are exceptional -- because something has gone terribly wrong, usually in the mental health care system. Tragedies are compounded and all our families suffer."

The report identifies an "intersection" of family concerns and makes four basic recommendations:

Ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses.
Reform the mental health care system to focus on treatment.
Recognize the needs of families of murder victims through rights to information and participation in criminal or mental health proceedings.
Families of executed persons also should be recognized as victims and given the assistance due to any victims of traumatic loss.
At least 100 people with mental illness have been put to death in the United States and hundreds more are awaiting execution.

Other resources:


Saturday, 4 July 2009

Friday, 3 July 2009

The Nation: Saving Troy Davis From Death Row

by Benjamin Jealous, July 2, 2009 · In late May I went to Georgia, where I met with Troy Anthony Davis on Death Row. He has been there for eighteen years, and I wanted to speak with him. I came away convinced that he represents the most compelling case of innocence in decades.

This week, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether to hear the request for a writ of habeas corpus in Davis's case in September hopefully signaling a more careful review of his motion. The reality, though, is that the last time the Justices granted such a motion was 1925 and should the Supreme Court decline the request, the countdown to Davis's execution will begin. It is even more imperative that the Chatham County District Attorney, Larry Chisolm, act now to do the right thing, and move to reopen the case.

The case must be reopened for several reasons: Davis's conviction was based on the word of eyewitnesses. However, since 2001, seven of the nine witnesses recanted or contradicted their original testimony. Several said they were coerced by the police. No physical evidence was ever produced that tied Davis to the murder of Mark Allen MacPhail, a white off-duty Savannah police officer who was killed as he tried to break up a street fight. The gun used in the shooting was never found.

Second, there is abundant evidence supporting Davis's likely innocence but it has not been aired in court. Our legal system does not allow defendants the opportunity to present new evidence of their innocence after conviction. This intransigence on legal procedural matters is unconscionable when a life is on the line.

The new evidence of his innocence means Davis deserves another day in court, not execution: The prospect that an innocent man might be put to death based on faulty witness testimony, and because the court won't agree to hear evidence of his innocence, represents a tragedy of epic proportions. A wrongful execution cannot be rectified.

More than thirty years' worth of social science and criminal justice research shows that eyewitness testimonies are notoriously unreliable, according to The Innocence Project. Since 1973, a total of 133 men and women have been exonerated or had their death sentences commuted based on post-conviction findings that demonstrated their likely innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Adding to the sense of urgency around the Davis case, too, is the long, sour history of wrongly-accused black men receiving "rough justice" in the Deep South. Davis was convicted in Chatham County, a place where genteel traditions and picturesque antebellum mansions mask the harsher truths about the history of slavery, racism, and the Jim Crow era that is still imprinted on the region. Chatham County is home to about 250,000 of Georgia's 9.7 million residents but it has produced 40 percent of all death row exonerations in the state.

The department of corrections in Georgia has blocked television media from visiting Davis. But when I met with him on May 29, I was overwhelmed by his quiet confidence, and by the high regard with which he is held by inmates and personnel alike.

It is evident that Davis's jailers—prison guards whose faces are usually stony or a blank slate of indifference—are moved by his plight. While we talked, I saw guards who clearly had come to believe as I do—that Troy Davis has spent nearly half his life on Death Row for a crime he did not commit. Outside, as I crossed the parking-lot under a merciless sun, I chatted with a woman who said she knew of a former guard who quit his duty at that facility, rather than have to take part in marching Troy Davis to the death chamber. I share that man's sense of outrage. I've also met with Davis's sister, Marita, and her son. He is nearing adulthood, and has only known his uncle as a Death Row inmate. But Davis, a former athletic coach, has nonetheless been an effective, compassionate mentor to his only nephew.

Yet it is not only the many details of Davis's humanity that has led to a groundswell of grassroots support for a campaign to reopen the case: It is the undeniable fact that, as a nation of laws, we have an obligation to reconsider death penalty convictions when new evidence of innocence is revealed.

This is why a "strange bedfellows" group of individuals have been drawn together to fight for the reopening of his case, including former FBI Director William Sessions, Pope Benedict XVI; former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Sessions, in fact, has been quite fired up about the need for reforms in a court and criminal justice system that refuses to re-examine a death penalty case despite new evidence that may prove a defendant's innocence.

"Only a full hearing, with all witnesses subject to rigorous cross-examination and a full exploration of the circumstances of their testimony, will provide a means to determine the reliability of the conviction," Sessions wrote in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed last year. "This never happened at [Troy Davis] trial. It must happen now."

The idea that any American might be sentenced to death without being allowed a full airing of all the evidence is an outrage, and represents a blatant flouting of our nation's founding principles. The NAACP has joined with Sessions, former president Jimmy Carter; Amnesty International, and a coalition of other human and civil rights groups to raise awareness of not only just the Troy Davis case, but of the urgent need to push for reforms to the criminal justice system. At, information is available showing why innocence matters, and how all Americans can become a part of the movement to find solutions.

I believe that Troy Davis is innocent—and that the family of the slain Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail, deserve to see the real killer brought to justice. These two things are not mutually exclusive, and our Constitution should be strong enough to ensure that both parts of that equation are realized.

Justin Grodin case will go on for several years

Baby killer entitled to many appeals; competency question complicates


When Justin Grodin is sentenced in August — either to life in prison or most likely to death by lethal injection if his judge follows the jury’s recommendation — it won’t create closure for the 9-year-old case.

Instead, it will signal the beginning of a new legal journey — an appeals process that will likely take more than a dozen years.

Grodin, 35, was convicted June 17 of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated child abuse in the 2000 death of his 11-month-old stepdaughter Gretchen. Last week, his jury recommended he be sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Lee Circuit Judge Edward Volz Jr. will have to make the decision, while giving the jury’s opinion “great weight.” Grodin will be in court next on Aug. 17 for a hearing where attorneys will argue to Volz, who will likely issue a written ruling explaining his decision. For Volz, this is the first time he will have to make the call.

Getting it right

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, the average stay on Death Row prior to execution is 12.3 years. In 2000, the average was nearly 14 years, according to The News-Press’ archives.

Florida and federal laws give capital murder convicts several avenues of appeal and that’s the way it should be, said Neal Dupree, the state’s capital collateral regional counsel in the south region. Capital Collateral Regional Counsel is an office akin to the public defender’s office, but created to provide representation for defendants sentenced to death during the appeals process.

“I think the courts take it seriously,” Dupree said. “There are a lot of safeguards put in place, because it’s such a serious issue.”

He said appeals are more efficient these days. Decades ago, attorneys were poorly trained to handle capital cases, less training was available and judges had less guidance and structure in making decisions. All those reasons gave attorneys a litany of issues to raise on appeal, Dupree said.

In 2000, however, the Legislature set up more stringent filing date requirements and more structured rules for judges and attorneys, which has speeded up the process, he said.

“The cases are moving much quicker,” he said. “The Legislature made that a priority over the last decade. They’ve really, really streamlined it.”

State Sen. Dave Aronberg, who is running for state attorney general, agreed the Legislature has made capital case efficiency a priority. But, cuts to the court system and an increase in defendants could leave motions sitting unresolved.

“I do think that will be a continuing issue under the budget crunch,” he said.

Aronberg, who is a member of the Florida Commission on Capital Cases and whose district includes part of Lee County, said capital cases require a balance between efficiency and fairness.

“When I speak to people in the community, they are concerned with the lengthy delays in the capital appeals process,” Aronberg said. “The goal is to do justice. You have to do it right.”

Try, try again

In Florida, defendants sentenced to death have many chances to appeal.

The first step will be Grodin getting new attorneys, courtesy of the taxpayers. They will pore through transcripts of the trial and related records.

Grodin’s attorneys will file what’s called a direct appeal, which goes to the Florida Supreme Court. The appeal is automatic and typically attacks errors made during trial, Dupree said. That process can take at least a year. The direct appeal can also be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If a direct appeal is denied, the next area a defendant can attack for relief is called a post-conviction motion. During that process, appeals attorneys will attack Grodin’s trial attorneys for mistakes they made that should result in a new trial. Those issues are decided by a circuit judge and possibly Volz, but can be taken to either the state or country’s high court.

A final appeal is a writ of habeas corpus on the federal level. It attacks the constitutionality of the trial. If all appeals are denied, the defendant can request clemency from the governor.

Ryan Wiggins, deputy communications director for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, said appeals can be dragged out for any number of reasons, including the issues raised on appeal and scheduling of the courts. Trial courts are not only dealing with cases that haven’t yet gone to trial, but also cases coming back on appeal.

Competency issue

A mentally incompetent defendant cannot be executed, which likely will be an issue raised in Grodin’s appeals. He was found incompetent to stand trial in 2005 and has been deemed competent by Volz since 2007. Doctors have disagreed about Grodin’s understanding of the court system and his attorneys have said he never contributed to his defense.

“It will definitely be an issue on appeal — whether he gets life or death,” said one of Grodin’s attorneys, J.L. “Ray” LeGrande.

Dupree said a judge during Grodin’s appeals could deem him incompetent, putting the process on hold.

“Competency is always an issue,” he said. “If a person’s incompetent, it will be brought up.”

Assistant State Attorney Anthony Kunasek said prosecutors have to balance getting a conviction with making sure it is done properly.

“The conviction doesn’t mean anything if the trial was filled with errors,” said Kunasek, who prosecuted Grodin. “You can cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s and still not anticipate an error that wasn’t intended.”

Kunasek, who has prosecuted several death penalty eligible cases, said he knows handling death penalty cases means anticipating a drawn-out process.

“If you’re dealing with capital cases and if you get a death sentence, that’s going to be a case you’re going to be dealing with for years to come,” he said.

Additional Facts
Joshua Nelson

He was convicted of conspiring with Keith Brennan to steal teenager’s Tommy Owens’ car in Cape Coral by luring him to a remote street on March 10, 1995. Brennan used a box cutter to slice Owens’ throat, while Nelson beat him with a baseball bat until he was dead.

• Sentenced to death on Nov. 27, 1996

• Direct appeal filed on Dec. 16, 1996

• Conviction and sentence affirmed on May 27, 1999

• Petition to U.S. Supreme Court
filed Nov. 18, 1999

• Petition denied by the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 18, 2000

• Post-conviction motion filed on Jan. 5, 2001

• Post-conviction motion is pending

Kevin Foster

Foster was the leader of the Lords of Chaos, a group of teens whose purpose was to create disorder through criminal acts. On April 30, 1996, the group shot Riverdale High School band teacher Mark Schwebes.

• Sentenced to death on June 17, 1998

• Direct appeal filed on July 6, 1998

• Conviction and sentence affirmed on Sept. 7, 2000

• Post-conviction motion filed Sept. 27, 2001

• Post-conviction motion is pending


Fight to save Troy Davis grows

Author: Joe Sims
People's Weekly World Newspaper, 07/03/09 16:12

The NAACP has initiated an “I am Troy Campaign” as part of worldwide effort to prevent the execution of Troy Davis, a 40-year-old man on death row in Georgia. Davis, who is African American, was convicted 20 years ago for the death of a white off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail.

Davis, a former coach, is viewed to be innocent by a broad coalition of including former President Jimmy Carter, the Vatican, Amnesty International, former FBI head William Sessions and conservative Bob Barr. Seven of nine witnesses in the case have recanted their testimony.

The Davis case has been twice appealed to the Supreme Court, which recently delayed deciding whether it will take it up until its fall session in September.

NAACP leader Benjamin Jealous, in a July 2 Nation article, called for both the Supreme Court and local District Attorney Larry Chisholm to do all within their power to insure that justice is served. According to Jealous, the high court agreed to consider a writ of habeas corpus in September, but noted that the last time such an appeal was granted was in 1925.

However, Davis attorney, Jason Ewart, appears hopeful, according to AP. “It’s definitely good news,” he said, interpreting the court’s inaction as a sign it wants to take a closer look at the case. “It’s not just a move buying more time.”

The Chatham County district attorney however has the power to reopen the case. Over 60,000 petitions were presented to its Savannah office demanding justice.

Jealous joined a delegation of several member of Congress, including Rep. John Lewis to visit Davis in May. Lewis is considering asking for a presidential pardon.

The NAACP head cites several reasons for reopening the case, among them, the recanting of eyewitnesses, the appearance of new evidence (not allowed consideration under current legal rules) and a history of discriminatory practices in Chatham County which is home to 40 percent of all death row exonerations in Georgia.

“This case stands out,” Jealous said during a May 29 news conference after he met with Mr. Davis. “Something's wrong in Chatham County.”

Information on the Troy Davis case can be found at