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Monday, March 30, 2009


Death Penalty Repeal in the Land of Enchantment

Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, had a wonderful article in the Huffington Post recently titled "Death Penalty Repeal in the Land of Enchantment." Read it by CLICKING HERE.

Highlights include:

"The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty joins people around the country and the world in celebrating New Mexico's death penalty repeal. Like the wise legislators in New Jersey and New York legislators who refused to revive their death penalty statute, New Mexico's lawmakers concluded that they'd had enough of a system that does not deter murders, is unfairly and unequally applied, risks wrongful convictions, and diverts resources from more effective crime fighting and from programs that serve murder victims' families. Reviewing the flaws inherent in capital punishment, New Mexico's legislators knew that they could no longer justify maintaining it.

Governor Richardson and New Mexico's lawmakers acted as responsible, practical and pragmatic stewards of their constituents' ultimate well being and tax dollars. Particularly, in these economic times, government must take a careful look at all of its programs and policy choices, and given limited resources, retain only what works and works well. After taking a careful look, New Mexico concluded, as have other states, that the death penalty drains resources from state coffers which could otherwise be used for much-needed increases in budgets for law enforcement, neighborhood policing, adult and juvenile crime prevention, substance abuse treatment and counseling, as substance abuse often leads to criminal activity, and murder victims' families' support programs."

Nice usage of the word "coffer," which means "a box or chest, especially one for valuables."

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


What About the Evidence?

In today's Tennessee Voices section of the Tennessean, editorials concerning the recommendations of the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty are featured. I have an opinion piece included, as does Verna Wyatt, Director of You Have the Power, a victims' advocacy group in Tennessee.

Verna charges that the Committee was biased from its inception. She quotes a TCASK newsletter from 2007 celebrating that TCASK, along with our legislative partners, successfully advocated for the passage of the study legislation and implies that our work to ensure a study means that the Committee was biased. Is it any real surprise that TCASK would advocate for a study committee on the death penalty given how broken it is?

As far as the make-up of the Committee, Wyatt does not mention that at least three of the four legislators who served on the Committee are on the record as pro-death penalty. Nevermind that Charles Strobel's own mother was murdered here in Nashville and that he served on the committee as a representative of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, a victims advocacy organization. Furthermore, legislation that Wyatt herself proposed concerning realistic time limits on post-conviction appeals was recommended by the Committee. Does she feel that legislation is also biased?

I find it unfortunate that Wyatt references no research or testimony that the Committee heard over the 14 months it met. Instead, she tries to undermine the Committee's work by questioning the motives of the people involved. But, not surprisingly, such an approach is often taken by those who have no substantive evidence to support their position which, in this case, is the fairness and accuracy of Tennessee's death penalty. All that remains is accusation.

Read more below:

Wyatt's op ed

Rector's op ed

Thursday, March 19, 2009


New Mexico Repeals Death Penalty

Governor Bill Richardson signed House Bill 285, repealing the death penalty in the state of New Mexico. The following is a statement from Governor Richardson:

Today marks the end of a long, personal journey for me and the issue of the death penalty.

Throughout my adult life, I have been a firm believer in the death penalty as a just punishment – in very rare instances, and only for the most heinous crimes. I still believe that.

But six years ago, when I took office as Governor of the State of New Mexico, I started to challenge my own thinking on the death penalty.

The issue became more real to me because I knew the day would come when one of two things might happen: I would either have to take action on legislation to repeal the death penalty, or more daunting, I might have to sign someone’s death warrant.

I’ll be honest. The prospect of either decision was extremely troubling. But I was elected by the people of New Mexico to make just this type of decision.

So, like many of the supporters who took the time to meet with me this week, I have believed the death penalty can serve as a deterrent to some who might consider murdering a law enforcement officer, a corrections officer, a witness to a crime or kidnapping and murdering a child. However, people continue to commit terrible crimes even in the face of the death penalty and responsible people on both sides of the debate disagree – strongly – on this issue.

But what we cannot disagree on is the finality of this ultimate punishment. Once a conclusive decision has been made and executed, it cannot be reversed. And it is in consideration of this, that I have made my decision.

I have decided to sign legislation that repeals the death penalty in the state of New Mexico.

Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime. If the State is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong.

But the reality is the system is not perfect – far from it. The system is inherently defective. DNA testing has proven that. Innocent people have been put on death row all across the country.

Even with advances in DNA and other forensic evidence technologies, we can’t be 100-percent sure that only the truly guilty are convicted of capital crimes. Evidence, including DNA evidence, can be manipulated. Prosecutors can still abuse their powers. We cannot ensure competent defense counsel for all defendants. The sad truth is the wrong person can still be convicted in this day and age, and in cases where that conviction carries with it the ultimate sanction, we must have ultimate confidence – I would say certitude – that the system is without flaw or prejudice. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably not the case.

And it bothers me greatly that minorities are overrepresented in the prison population and on death row.

I have to say that all of the law enforcement officers, and especially the parents and spouses of murder victims, made compelling arguments to keep the death penalty. I respect their opinions and have taken their experiences to heart -- which is why I struggled – even today – before making my final decision.

Yes, the death penalty is a tool for law enforcement. But it’s not the only tool. For some would-be criminals, the death penalty may be a deterrent. But it’s not, and never will be, for many, many others.

While today’s focus will be on the repeal of the death penalty, I want to make clear that this bill I’m signing actually makes New Mexico safer. With my signature, we now have the option of sentencing the worst criminals to life in prison without the possibility of parole. They will never get out of prison.

Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe.

The bill I am signing today, which was courageously carried for so many years by Representative Gail Chasey, replaces the death penalty with true life without the possibility of parole – a sentence that ensures violent criminals are locked away from society forever, yet can be undone if an innocent person is wrongfully convicted. More than 130 death row inmates have been exonerated in the past 10 years in this country, including four New Mexicans – a fact I cannot ignore.

From an international human rights perspective, there is no reason the United States should be behind the rest of the world on this issue. Many of the countries that continue to support and use the death penalty are also the most repressive nations in the world. That’s not something to be proud of.

In a society which values individual life and liberty above all else, where justice and not vengeance is the singular guiding principle of our system of criminal law, the potential for wrongful conviction and, God forbid, execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings. That is why I’m signing this bill into law.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


New Mexico on the Brink of Repeal

On Friday, March 13, the New Mexico State Senate voted 24-18 in favor of repeal of the death penalty. This vote marked the last hurdle for abolition in the New Mexico legislature. Governor Bill Richardson has until tomorrow to decide if he will sign the repeal legislation into law, abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico.

Please join abolitionists from around the country in urging Governor Richardson to make New Mexico the second state to abolish the death penalty since the 1960s.

Vote YES in this online poll (down in middle of page):

Contact Gov. Richardson urging him to support the repeal of the death penalty in New Mexico, House Bill 285. Call Governor Richardson: 505-476-2225. Email Governor Richardson by CLICKING HERE.

There is no doubt that the abolitionist movement is gaining momentum. State legislatures around the country are realizing that the death penalty is unfair, risks executing the innocent, and is far too expensive to fix and maintain. New Mexico is the newest example that abolition is a reality and that the states that still have the death penalty are on the wrong side of justice. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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Friday, March 13, 2009


TCASK Represented in NY

Former TCASK board of directors chair, Amy Sayward, hosted a discussion last night at St. Bonaventure University about the Catholic church and the death penalty. St. Bonaventure is located 77 miles south of Buafflo.

The discussion which she co-hosted with Olean attorney, Janine Fodor was titled, Dr. Amy Sayward is a 1991 graduate of St. Bonaventure University and currently chair of the history department at Middle Tennessee State University.

Listen to an interview with Dr. Amy Sayward about the discussion by CLICKING HERE.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Cover Article on Steve Henley in the Nashville Scene

In last week's Nashville Scene, the cover story focused on the case of Steve Henley, a Tennessee death row inmate executed in February 2009. As most of you who regularly read this blog already know, I visited Steve for the past 10 years, and over those years, he became like a brother to me. When I first began visiting him, I was a young minister working in a local church and was not serving TCASK in my current position. As his execution approached, I struggled in dealing with Steve's execution as both his spiritual advisor and as the Executive Director of TCASK. Playing both roles was very difficult, and I continue to deal with my own personal grief and the grief of his family in the aftermath of the execution.

When I saw the article in the Scene, the title unnerved me, "Manburner." I was eating lunch with a friend with whom I was sharing about my experience of the execution when she said, "Hey, did you see the Scene?" My emotions were already heightened so the title really hit me in the gut.

As I read the story, I appreciated that the writer, Brantley Hargrove, introduced readers to Steve Henley the man, hardworking farmer, and father, who was was doing his best to maintain his grandpa's farm and provide for his kids. At his best, that is who Steve was. As I continued reading, the circumstances and theories about the tragic and horrible murders of the Staffords were detailed, all of which I had read before in the trial transcripts. The circumstantial evidence presented was damning.

But there were things left out of the story, things like the fact that Steve talked to a guy about a truck driving job only 10 minutes after the crime, that the Henley family is still unclear as to what the "feud" between these families was about, that Steve was not even involved personally in the car accident with the Staffords which was used as part of the motive for what happened, though the vehicle he shared with Buck Anderson was.

I also appreciated that Brantley laid out the facts about the sloppy investigation of the crime--like a relatively shiny shell casing from Steve's rifle discovered in the ashes of the Staffords' home only after the rifle was discovered (the rifle that Flatt told officials where to find). If one reads the trial transcripts about the investigation, the number of problems is unsettling .

But, I admit that the Scene article was also very hard for me to read because attempting to reconcile the person who killed those elderly people as possibly being the same person that I knew and loved for 10 years is not easy. At the same time, I recognize that I wasn't there and did not know Steve Henley or Terry Flatt in 1985 when their lives were spiraling out of control. And, that all of us, whether we want to admit it or not, are capable of some pretty awful things given our circumstances and state of mind--this is not an excuse but a reality. And at the end of the day, as Sister Helen Prejean states, "There is more to every person than the worst thing he or she has ever done." Thanks be to God.

And still, for me, the death penalty really isn't about the people who commit these awful crimes. Once we as a society get to the point of an execution, the people we execute are already in prison, being held accountable for their actions. So the act of execution then really becomes about us as a people, and how we choose to act. Do we behave in the same manner that the convicted chose to or do we respond differently? For me, as a Christian, I have to ask, "Do I choose to allow the one who murdered dictate my actions or do I choose to look to the example of Jesus Christ and allow him to dictate my actions?"

So while Steve's guilt or innocence does not change my feelings one way or the other concerning the death penalty, I struggle with truly understanding the person I knew and loved in Steve. All along I was very clear with him that his guilt or innocence changed nothing concerning how I felt about him or whether we would remain friends. I wanted him to reach a place where he could acknowledge his part in what had happened, if he, in fact, killed the Staffords or participated in the murder with Flatt. But for 23 years and until the end, Steve was adamant about his innocence, and he needed for me to believe him when so few others did.

So I am left with the memories of my friend, remaining questions about what really happened, and the reality of a system that sanctioned and pursued his death. None of us will ever know what happened that evening in July 1985. What I do know is that two men were arrested for these brutal murders. One implicated himself, made a deal, and served only 5 years. The other was executed. The question remains, "Is this the kind of justice we want?"

Read the Scene article here

Monday, March 09, 2009


Eyewitness Testimony Lacks Reliability

60 Minutes aired a great story on last night's show concerning the increasing problems related to the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Leslie Stahl interviewed Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, both of North Carolina, whose lives are forever connected by Thompson's misidentification of Cotton as her rapist. After serving eleven years in prison, DNA evidence finally exonerated Cotton and identified the real rapist, a man already in prison but who had tragically raped more women before he was finally caught.

Stahl tells viewers that of the approximately 230 DNA exonerations in this country in recent years, 75% of them were falsely identified by an eyewitness. She explores how susceptible memory is to suggestion and demonstrates how easy it is for our memories to be wrong.

When Barry Scheck testified to the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee, he spent a good deal of time discussing the issue of false eyewitness identification. Clark McMillan, whose innocence was proven through DNA testing, was wrongfully convicted in Tennessee largely due to mistaken identification. Scheck encouraged the Committee to look into the reforms on eyewitness id procedures, supported by 25 years of research, called for by leading experts. Many of these reforms have been enacted in states like New Jersey, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Unfortunately, no law is currently in place in Tennessee that guides law enforcement to use scientifically supported procedures shown to reduce such mistaken identifications.

Watch 60 Minutes here.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Nashville Write-a-Thon

On Sunday, March 1st, the Nashville chapter of TCASK hosted a write-a-thon to hand write letters to their legislators. March 1st marks International Death Penalty Abolition Day. A tragic lesson underlies the origins of International Death Penalty Abolition Day. In 1828, circumstantial evidence convicted Detroit native Patrick Fitzpatrick of the rape and murder of an innkeeper’s daughter. He was hanged shortly thereafter. Seven years later, Fitzpatrick’s ex-roommate, wanting to clear his conscience on his deathbed, confessed to the woman’s murder. Michigan’s first official act of the legislature after becoming a state in 1847 was to repeal capital punishment. The day was March 1st.

30 Tennesseans gathered at Gallery F by Vanderbilt University to hand write over 100 letters to their legislators. These 30 unique voices recognize the importance of expressing how they feel about the death penalty to those representing them in our capitol. Recently, the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty issued a report with recommendations for legislation. Read more about this HERE. This common sense legislation will make the death penalty more fair and reduce the risk of executing an innocent person. Letter writers understood that if we're going to have a death penalty, lets at least ensure that it is fair and accurate.

Successful events like Sunday's write-a-thon demonstrate that Tennesseans are committed to change. They want to fix a broken system, even if it means that abolition of the death penalty won't happen tomorrow. It is an incredible privilege to work with such amazing people like Sabine Schlunk who hosted the write-a-thon at Gallery F. Also, Lauren Brown, TCASK's newest board member who recruited 3 of her friends to come write letters. And, Harry Simpson, who dutifully takes wonderful pictures (like above) at TCASK's events. While 100 letters is a lot, we have hundreds, thousands more to write before our elected officials realize that supporting a broken system is wrong, and that we can do better to provide Tennessee with a system that is fair and reduces the risk of executing the innocent.