"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Murderers with mental illnesses may be spared execution in Ohio

Ohio lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit executing offenders who suffer from a serious mental illness, under certain conditions.

A bill introduced this week by state Sens. John Eklund, R-Chardon, and Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, would take death sentences off the table for those who show they suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of the crime. Likewise, inmates on Death Row would have a mechanism for being re-sentenced to life in prison if they can show they suffered from major depression, schizophrenia or another serious mental illness at the time they committed their crimes, according to Senate Bill 40.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities and juveniles are currently exempt from capital punishment.

"No less than juveniles or the mentally disabled, persons with serious mental illness lack the culpability normally associated with death penalty offenses even if they cannot meet the exacting standards of 'not guilty by reason of insanity' - a defense which if proved, prohibits any punishment on the offender," according to the Ohio Alliance for the Mental Illness Exemption, which is urging support of SB40.

In April 2014, the 22-member Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force recommended the most sweeping overhaul to capital punishment the state has seen in 30 years. Among its 56 recommendations in a 76-page report: prohibit executions of mentally ill prisoners.

Ohio adopted its current death penalty statute in 1981. It has executed 53 men since executions resumed in 1999. Mental Health America estimates that 20 % of all death row inmates suffer from a severe mental illness.

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said 46 of the 138 inmates on Death Row are receiving mental health treatment and 22 of the 46 are designated as seriously mentally ill. Data on how many of them had the mental health issue at the time of their crimes was not available.

State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miami Twp., who supports ending capital punishment, said "I understand that repealing the death penalty is a controversial issue, but I hope we can come to a consensus that at the very least those people with serious mental illnesses should not be executed."

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association has been an ardent supporter of maintaining the death penalty.

Megan Testa, a forensic psychiatrist and a member of the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association, said the association backs SB40 because it establishes procedures for considering reduced culpability for offenders suffering for severe mental illnesses when they commit crimes.

Source: Dayton Daily News, February 18, 2017

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Pakistan: Flawed justice system: 10% of death row convicts children

"A system rigged against the very people it sought to protect."

Around 10 % of Pakistan's death row convicts are feared to be juvenile offenders, who have been sentenced to death in a clear violation of the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, 2000 (JJSO) and the international obligations.

This has been claimed in a report titled 'Death Row's Children: Pakistan's Unlawful Executions of Juvenile Offenders', has been compiled by human rights law firm Justice Project Pakistan (JPP). The report was launched in Islamabad on Friday.

The study highlights the complete violation of JJSO's section 12 which prohibits "the sentencing of juvenile offenders to death, or labour during their imprisonment".

"In Pakistan despite prohibiting the sentencing and imposition of the death penalty against juvenile offenders, hundreds of suspected juvenile offenders have been put to death so far.

"Many of the alleged juveniles sentenced to death prior to the notification continue to be denied an inquiry into their claim of juvenility by provincial home departments and the courts," the report says.

According to the report, at least 6 juvenile offenders have been executed since December 2014 - when the government lifted a 6-year de facto moratorium on death penalty - despite credible evidence showing them to be underage at the time of the alleged crime.

The government has consistently maintained that no executions of juvenile offenders have taken place. However, juvenile offenders continue to be executed due to lack of implementation of protective safeguards and protocols particularly whilst conducting age determination investigations.

Challenges impeding course of juvenile justice


The report has attributed dismal lack of birth registrations in the country as one of the major reasons behind poor juvenile justice in Pakistan.

Pakistan is among the countries which have the lowest rate of birth registrations. It is estimated that there are nearly 10 million children - below the age of 5 years - who are currently unregistered. This figure is growing by nearly 3 million every year.

"Pakistan's failure to fulfill the right to birth registration for its children means that the criminal justice system is marred by a high risk of wrongful arrests, detention and executions of child offenders," says the report. It says juvenile suspects fail to produce any authentic documentation to prove their exact date of birth.

Resultantly, it becomes impossible for the police to determine the exact age of the juvenile and therefore they treat him just like adult prisoners. They are kept along with prisoners who are double or triple their age until a plea of juvenility is raised at the trial stage, it says.

Furthermore juveniles, who lack proper documentation, find it almost impossible to challenge the arbitrary assessments. "An absence of comprehensive guidance on how and when to determine age of an accused person has marred a significant number of trials of juvenile offenders with confusion."

When contacted, an official of the Ministry of Human Rights - while requesting anonymity - said, "It is just 1 example of violation of child rights law in Pakistan. However, there are several other such laws which are being violated everyday due to which children are becoming victim of cruelty and brutality."

Flawed system


During the launch event for the report on Friday, parliamentarians said that it highlighted an important issue which needs to be addressed immediately.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) MNA Asad Umar said that below a certain age, someone cannot be held accountable for their decisions and actions.

Noting how "deeply flawed Pakistan's criminal justice is", he said that the death penalty needs to be exercised with "extreme caution".

Senator Farhatullah Babar, who is also a member of the human rights' committee of the upper house, said there was a need to implement birth determining protocols to protect juvenile offenders.

He urged that the country should move from a security state to a welfare state.

Sarah Belal, the executive director of JPP said that the juvenile justice system did not do children any good if it appeared to be rigged against the very people it sought to protect.

Source: Express News, February 18, 2017


State of juvenile prisoners on death row in Pakistan highlighted


Aftab Bahadur was sentenced to death, implicated in a triple murder case when he was a young man of 14 years of age. After languishing in the jail for 24 years he walked to the gallows on June 10, 2015, and was hanged by the neck till the time he was dead at the age of 38 years.

Outside the gate of the jail was the man, on whose testimony he was declared guilty of the crime, which he never committed, weeping bitterly and crying for mercy, pleading pardon for Aftab Bahadur, shouting that he gave a wrong statement under coercion.

All his wailing failed to prevent a 'judicial murder'! This was one of many more such cases we have seen in the history of Pakistan. Not many months ago the Supreme Court declared 2 persons, real brothers in fact, as innocent of the alleged murder for which they were awarded death sentence. They were acquitted of the crime they allegedly committed and orders were passed for their 'honourable release' from jail.

The release orders only got a response from the jail authorities that the 2 brothers have been hanged to death 2 years ago!

We have seen the number of executions jump to one of the highest in the world since the government of Pakistan lifted the moratorium on death penalty in the backdrop of the horrifying incident of terrorist strike on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar. However, as the result of lifting of the moratorium we have seen few terrorists being executed while a large number of other convicts have been taken to the gallows, as if the authorities were in too great a hurry to finish the job!

And we saw some juvenile prisoners also meeting the same fate in this execution spree.

The Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) engaged in efforts to restore the moratorium on death penalty, released 1 of its reports today (Friday) at a local hotel, highlighting the state of juvenile prisoners on death row in Pakistan.

It was a well attended launch and the participants included the members of the Parliament, both from the Lower as well as Upper House, diplomats based in Islamabad and a large number of people from different walks of life.

According to the press release issued by the JPP after the function the report launched on the occasion indicates that the juvenile justice system in Pakistan has failed to protect its juveniles from being sentenced to death. The report documents the fundamental weaknesses in the country's juvenile justice system including inadequate legislative protections, scant birth registration, and lack of age determination protocols that leads to countless juveniles being sentenced to death and eventually executed.

Speaking on the occasion the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf MNA, Asad Umar stated that "below a certain age, you cannot be held accountable for the decisions that you make." He added that the death penalty has to be exercised with "extreme caution" given how "deeply flawed Pakistan's criminal justice is."

Commenting on the lack of retrospective force of the Presidential Notification for the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance (JJSO), Mr Umar expressed his "complete shock and horror that a legally binding presidential order is being violated."

The PPP Senator, Mr Farhatullah Babar, while praising the report observed that, the issues highlighted in the report posed an urgent need for to address the low rates of birth registration as well as implementing age determination protocols to protect juvenile offenders. He also called for reducing the number of crimes punishable by death in Pakistan (currently 27). The Member of the Senate Committee on Human Rights said that while Pakistan is a security-driven society, it needs to strive to become a welfare-driven society, as guided by Article 38. Sen. Babar also advised that the findings of the report be shared with parliamentarians to sensitize them to the cause of human rights.

Commissioner, National Commission of Human Rights, Chaudhry Shafique questioned the point of the government ratifying international human rights treaties, if the judiciary was unwilling to implement the obligations contained in them.

Child Rights Commissioner Ms Farzana Bari and the parliamentarian Ms Nafisa Khattak, Shafqat Ali of the Ministry of Human Rights, activist Ms Valerie Khan, Director of Conflict Law Centre at the Research Society for International Law Oves Anwar, founder of SPARC, Mr Anees Jilani also spoke at the launch.

Like 160 countries in the world, Pakistan has enacted legislation, specifically the JJSO, prohibiting the sentencing and imposition of the death penalty against juvenile offenders - persons who commit crimes before turning eighteen years of age.

JPP has analyzed 140 reported cases, since the beginning of the operation of the JJSO in 2000 to 2016, wherein a plea of juvenility had been raised by an accused person. 4 different types of evidence were taken into account, including a statement under S. 342 of the Criminal Penal Code, medical evidence, birth certificates and school leaving certificates, noting where judges had placed reliance on each, and where they had rejected each.

The report revealed the executions of Aftab Bahadur, Shafqat Hussain, Ansar Iqbal, Muhammad Sarfraz, Faisal Mehmood and Muhammad Amin - all juveniles at the time of arrest - proves this claim to be blatantly false.

Zafarullah Khan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Law stated at the Pakistan's 5th periodic review at the UNCRC that "minors were tried under the Special Court Law, separately from majors." Yet, nearly 17 years after the JJSO was promulgated, the government has failed to install separate juvenile courts.

Ms Sarah Belal, the Executive Director of JPP said that the juvenile justice system does not do our children any good, if it appears to be rigged against the very people it seeks to protect. This report, and its findings underscore the urgent need to pass the pending Juvenile Justice System Bill so fewer minors will face the gallows.

Source: thenews.com.pk, February 18, 2017

Related article: Pakistan: Executing Children, February 16, 2017

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Kuwait rejects European Parliament’s criticism over executions

Execution in Kuwait
Execution in Kuwait
Criticisms based on “inaccurate reports published by private organisations and media institutions.”

Manama: Kuwait has expressed reservations over European Parliament’s criticism of the execution of convicted murderers last month.

“Integrity and transparency are the major characteristic of Kuwait’s judiciary and all defendants are provided with defence attorneys as guaranteed by Kuwaiti laws,” Jassem Al Budaiwi, Kuwait’s Ambassador to Belgium said.

The European Union on Wednesday said that it “deeply deplores” the executions in Kuwait and called for “a moratorium on the death penalty as a step towards its abolition,” the diplomat was quoted as saying by Kuwait News Agency (Kuna) on Friday.

However, Al Budaiwi said that while he understood the motives behind the European Parliament’s statement, he urged the European lawmakers to understand the principles of Kuwait Criminal Law, which did not clash with Kuwait’s obligations vis-a-vis the international community.

The diplomat added that European Parliament’s mention of alleged human rights issues in Kuwait was based on “inaccurate reports published by some private organisations and media institutions.”

“The European Parliament did not contact the official authorities for information, resulting in a report that does not reflect the bright image of the State of Kuwait in terms of human rights, an image that is internationally appreciated.”

“All judicial and government institutions in Kuwait are operating in a transparent manner, and the human rights watchdogs in the state have full access to information and sources they need,” Al Budaiwi said.

The ambassador played down the impact of the European Parliament’s non-binding decision on the European-Kuwait ties, which he described as “historic and distinguished.”

Kuwait’s foreign ministry has recently affirmed that seven people were executed for committing murders, and the death penalty’s verdicts were based on criminal law.

Kuwait on January 25 executed seven convicts two Kuwaitis (Shaikh Faisal Al Abdullah Al Sabah and Nasra Al Enezi), two Egyptians, a Bangladeshi, a Filipina, and an Ethiopian, after they were found guilty in cases of premeditated murder, rape and theft.

The death penalty, by hanging, was carried out in application of the verdicts pronounced by courts and upheld by the Court of Appeals and the Court of Cassation and endorsed by the Emir.

The convicts were allowed final visits one day before the execution by relatives in the cases of the Kuwaitis and by representatives from their diplomatic missions for the foreigners. 

Shaikh Faisal was sentenced to death in October 2011 after the Criminal Court found him guilty of the murder of his nephew Shaikh Basil Salem Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah in June 2010.

Shaikh Basil, 52, was the grandson of Kuwait’s 12th Emir, Shaikh Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, who ruled from November 24, 1965 to December 31, 1977.

The Kuwaiti authorities had ruled out any political motives behind the murder as Shaikh Basil did not hold an official position. The death sentence was upheld in 2013.

The Kuwaiti woman, Nasra Al Enezi, was sentenced to death for setting ablaze a wedding camp in 2009, killing 57 women and children.

The Bangladeshi, Mohammad Shaha Mohammad, was sentenced to death in 2009 for kidnapping, rape and theft in Jahra.

The Filipina, Jakatia Pawa, was convicted in 2008 of premeditated murder while the Ethiopian was also convicted of murder in 2008.

One Egyptian, Sayyed Radhi Jumaa, was convicted in 2008 for premeditated murder while the other Egyptian, Sameer Taha Abdul Majed, was sentenced to death in 2009 for murder and theft.

Source: Gulf News, February 18, 2017

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Lining Up a Conviction: A suggestive photo lineup put Juan Balderas on death row

Juan Balderas, 2015
Juan Balderas in 2015
Experts say he may have been wrongfully convicted, but will he get a new trial in time?

At first glance, the photo lineup that helped send Juan Balderas to death row doesn't look too unusual. It shows 6 young Latino men staring blankly ahead. Balderas, in the bottom middle position, looks calm, almost as if he's daydreaming.

But according to judges and experts, this lineup is deeply prejudicial. 2 small details - the black hoodie Balderas is wearing and the mark on his left cheek - may have singled him out to the witness who viewed this lineup. Balderas was sentenced to death for a 2005 Houston murder based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, and he's maintained his innocence ever since.

The witness identification procedure in Balderas' case gained the attention of the state's highest criminal court, with a majority of judges ruling in November that it was suggestive, and 1 judge arguing it was so prejudicial that Balderas deserved a new trial. Combined with allegations that prosecutors hid evidence from the defense during the trial, and that another witness has recanted his account of the shooting, the identification raises the troubling question of whether Balderas was wrongfully convicted.

Meanwhile, a panel of experts formed to cut down on wrongful convictions is urging state legislators to beef up rules for witness identifications. Balderas' case is one example of how small errors in police treatment of eyewitnesses can lead to serious problems with a conviction.

On December 6, 2005, 16-year-old Eduardo Hernandez was hanging out with friends at an apartment in Alief, a suburb in sprawling southwest Houston. A man in a black hoodie barged in, circled the room, and shot Hernandez 9 times in the back and head.

Hernandez was part of a local street gang called La Tercera Crips. He had angered his fellow members by snitching and throwing hand signs for a rival gang, several would later testify.

The only witness who saw the shooter's face was Wendy Bardales, the sister of Hernandez's girlfriend. She described the shooter as someone she had never seen before, a young Latino man about 5 feet 6 inches tall, skinny and clean-shaven. He had short black hair in a fade haircut and was wearing a black hoodie. And he had a dark mark on his cheek, she said. The night after the shooting, officers showed her a photo lineup, but she told them the shooter wasn't in it.

Over the next few days, Houston police received anonymous tips suggesting that Balderas, another member of the gang, was involved. The week after the murder, an officer went back to Wendy with a new lineup of 6 photos, which the Observer obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request. Wendy recognized Balderas - the 2 had lived in the same apartment complex and had known each other for about a year. She told the officer that Balderas "could be the shooter," and that he "looked like the shooter," even though on the night of the murder she had told police that the shooter was someone she had never seen before.

The officer returned to her house the next day, trying to pin her down on whether Balderas was the shooter, but she still didn't say she was sure. Finally, the officer told her to place her hands over the top of the face of each subject, in order to simulate the shooter's hoodie. When she did, the officer later testified, her eyes "grew wide" and "began to water." Wendy said she was positive that Balderas was the shooter.

"A witness's actual memory can be forever changed if suggestive procedures are used."

Experts who study witness identification procedures say it's a textbook example of an identification gone wrong. The 1st problem is the lineup itself. It includes only 1 person - Balderas - who matches the description Wendy gave police. None of the other 5 men are wearing a black hoodie or have any marks on their faces. They also don't match her description in other ways: Some are heavier, others not clean-shaven, others not wearing a fade haircut.

"Given the witness's description, this photo array is extremely suggestive and creates enormous potential for a wrongful conviction," said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a University of Houston law professor who studies witness identification. "The suspect should not stand out, and given that he is the only person with those distinctive features, this is highly suggestive." Large police departments typically have huge databases of booking photos, so it shouldn't be a problem to find "filler" photos that better match a witness's description.

The process is also an issue. Research over the past few years has made clear that even small, unintentionally leading statements by officers can make witnesses feel pressured to choose someone. Coaching, such as when the officer urged Wendy to cover parts of the faces, can do the same. Among other research, a 2013 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that repeatedly showing a witness the same photo can lead to their memory being essentially overwritten, with the photo replacing the original recollection of the face. "Memory is not like a video that remains constant," Thompson said. "It is very malleable and very prone to suggestion; a witness's actual memory can be forever changed if suggestive procedures are used."

Once Wendy identified Balderas, he became the only suspect in the murder case. 3 days later, on December 16, 2005, he was arrested carrying a box of guns that included the murder weapon. (Several gang members later testified that the box contained guns they shared.) More than 8 years passed before he went to trial in early 2014, a delay caused by the judge's overcrowded docket and repeated turnover among prosecutors and defense lawyers. At trial, Wendy told the jury that she was sure Balderas was the shooter. Balderas' court-appointed attorney called only 1 witness - another member of the gang, who said that a different gang member had committed the murder. Prosecutors presented no physical evidence connecting Balderas to the crime scene, such as fingerprints or DNA. After deliberating for 2 days, the jury convicted Balderas and sentenced him to death.

In November 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in the state, dismissed Balderas' 1st appeal. But a majority of justices on the 9-person court said they were concerned with the use of the photo lineup.

"Until this Court disallows tainted identifications based on suggestive photo spreads, as occurred in this case, Texas will continue to be a leader in the wrongful convictions of innocent people," Judge Elsa Alcala wrote in a dissent. She said Balderas deserved a new trial. In a concurring opinion, 4 other judges concluded that the witness identification procedure was "suggestive, and perhaps impermissibly so," but said they would allow Balderas' conviction to stand because of the "totality of the circumstances."

The concerns about witness identification make Balderas' case hardly an outlier: Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of convictions that are later exonerated, according to a study by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, a state commission convened by the Legislature. The panel found that more than 1/3 of the 56 non-drug-related wrongful convictions in Texas since 2010 have come in cases with witness misidentifications. Timothy Cole, the wrongfully convicted defendant for whom the panel is named, was misidentified using a 6-person photo lineup just like the one used in the Balderas case.

There's a pretty clear way to avoid this. Recent research has concluded that all witness identifications should be conducted by a "blind" officer who does not know which person in a lineup is the suspect, that all identifications should be recorded, and that a witness should be informed that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that they aren't required to choose anyone. Some research also finds that lineups are more dependable when witnesses are shown one photo at a time, which prevents them from scanning multiple photos at once and choosing the person who seems the most similar to their memory, though that conclusion is disputed.

The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2011 that led to the adoption of a state model eyewitness policy that includes most of those reforms.

But police departments don't have to follow the model policy. The 2011 law only requires departments to have some written policy, whether it meets scientific standards or not. "There's no real teeth in it," said David Moore, the president-elect of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. The law also isn't retroactive, so it doesn't do anything to help defendants like Balderas.

John Cannon, a spokesperson for the Houston Police Department, said the department's witness identification policy has changed since 2005 and now requires "blind" officers. He said he could not discuss Balderas' case because his conviction is still being appealed.

In December, the Cole panel released a new report recommending that all Texas police departments be required to follow the model policy. Rodney Ellis, who wrote the 2011 law as a state senator and is now a Harris County commissioner, told the Observer he supported that idea. "There is absolutely room for improvement," he said in an email, adding that the law was passed as a "compromise."

But even the new reforms proposed by the panel don't go far enough, argued Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Texas Innocence Project. His suggestion for the Legislature: Pass a simple law that prevents prosecutors from using any witness identification that modern research tells us is suggestive or biased.

The Balderas case "is a startling example of why people who believe we're making gradual progress in criminal justice reform are wrong," Blackburn said. "We need a direct, honest response to this problem, or it's never going to get solved."

Aside from the photo lineup, the judges who ruled against Balderas in his appeal found that there was more than enough evidence to convict him. They noted that he was arrested while in possession of the murder weapon and with a magazine clip in his pocket that fit that exact gun. A fellow gang member named Israel Diaz also told the jury that Balderas had confessed to him. Wendy's identification, the gun and Diaz's testimony added up to sufficient evidence for a death sentence, the judges found.

But new questions have also been raised about Diaz's testimony. In court, Diaz dramatically recounted meeting Balderas just hours after the murder took place, describing an almost biblical scene. "He just hugged everyone like sort of when you haven't seen nobody in a long time, like joyful, and he gave each individual a hug, and when he got towards me, he gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek," Diaz told the jury. "He said he got him, he finally got him."

Diaz has since recanted that testimony, according to an affidavit prepared by Balderas' defense investigator. The investigator said Diaz told him in a 2015 interview that prosecutors pressured Diaz to implicate Balderas. When Diaz resisted, "the prosecutor stopped me there and told me that I needed to 'change that,'" Diaz is quoted as saying in the investigator's report. "I was told that I needed to say in court that Juan told me he killed Eduardo.

"The truth is that Juan never told me that."

On the 1st day of Balderas' trial, Diaz finalized a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for testifying, he had charges against him in a separate case reduced from capital murder to aggravated robbery. Diaz was sentenced to 20 years in prison and has now been released on parole, according to state records.

Investigators for Balderas also found 23 pages of handwritten notes from previous interviews with Diaz in prosecutors' files. They say these notes, taken by prosecutors during interviews in 2007 and 2008, were never released to Balderas' trial lawyers, which is required by law. According to the notes, Diaz originally told prosecutors that Balderas said "we took care of that," not that Balderas personally confessed to killing Hernandez.

In court filings, the state has defended Balderas' conviction and the witness identification procedure. "The witness got a good view of Balderas during the murder, she picked him out of the lineup right away, and she has never wavered in her identification," Clinton Morgan, an assistant district attorney for Harris County, said in a statement.

Balderas, who has served almost 2 years on death row at the Polunsky Unit in West Livingston, is now waiting on several appeals. In a letter to the Observer, he said he was hopeful about the results. "The photo lineup was extremely unfair and even more prejudicial was the process in which the tainted identification was obtained," he wrote. "Though at the moment I feel optimistic in reaching the light of justice, throughout the night I still feel frightened and distressed, aware of the looming death penalty after being wrongfully convicted."

Source: Texas Observer, Casey Tolan, February 17, 2017. Casey Tolan is a freelance reporter based in New York who covers criminal justice, immigration and politics.

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Oklahoma House advances measure ending electric chair executions

The Oklahoma House approved legislation Thursday to eliminate the electric chair as a method of execution, although it's been more than 50 years since the state's last electrocution.

The bill lists which execution methods are allowed, including lethal injection, nitrogen hypoxia - which causes death by depleting oxygen in the blood - firing squad and any other form not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

Electrocution has not been used to execute an Oklahoma death row inmate since 1966, and a firing squad has never been used in the state.

The measure also would give the Department of Corrections' director the choice of which method to use.

House members voted 74-22 for the bill and sent it to the Senate for a vote.

Oklahoma has executed 112 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the highest per-capita rate in the nation and second overall tally only to Texas, where 537 inmates have been put to death over the last 40 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

But executions have been on hold in Oklahoma since a botched execution in 2014 and drug mix-ups during the last 2 scheduled lethal injections in 2015.

Oklahoma was the 1st state to authorize lethal injection as a method of execution, and capital punishment has strong, bipartisan support in the Oklahoma Legislature.

Lawmakers approved the use of nitrogen gas as an alternative method of execution after an inmate writhed on the gurney during a 2014 lethal injection that prison officials tried unsuccessfully to halt.

Last year, voters overwhelmingly approved a statewide referendum that enshrined the death penalty in the state constitution, making it more difficult for future legislators or the courts to end it.

Source: Associated Press, February 17, 2017

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60th anniversary of New Zealand's last hanging

Walter James Bolton
Walter James Bolton
Walter Bolton was the last man to be hung in New Zealand before capital punishment was repealed.

The trap door opened. His body fell.

On this day 60 years ago [February 18, 1957], Whanganui farmer Walter James Bolton became the last person in New Zealand to be hanged after being found guilty of murdering his wife of 43 years, Beatrice Bolton, by poisoning her with arsenic.

Bolton, 68, was hanged at the gallows in Auckland Prison, now known as Mt Eden Prison, at 6.30pm for the part he played in the crime.

Stuff reports show the prosecution alleged Bolton killed Beatrice because he was in love with another woman - his sister-in-law Florence Doughty - with whom he had a sexual affair.

Lawyers for the Crown claimed Bolton had concocted a potion of arsenic from sheep dip and laced his wife's tea with it on several occasions, requiring hospital treatment, before killing her with a large dose on July 11, 1956.

His execution was made controversial by the suggestion that his wife had not been murdered at all.

Bolton and his wife were married for 43 years and had 6 children and a relatively close relationship, journalist Bernie Steeds wrote in an article on the couple.

In the 15 months before she died, her mystery illness was never diagnosed, but an autopsy identified arsenic as the cause.

It was suggested Bolton had put the poison in her cups of tea, though no trace of the poison was ever found.

Steeds said sheep dip may have found its way into the house's spring and Bolton also had traces of arsenic in his hair and fingernails.

Active people get rid of arsenic more quickly, and Beatrice had been unwell, and had rested a lot before the poisoning was alleged to have begun, he said.

But an all-male jury in Bolton's hometown found him guilty, and despite his claims of innocence, he lost his Court of Appeal case.

In a book written by Sherwood Young, Guilty On The Gallows, a police officer who attended Bolton's execution was interviewed.

Only 20 at the time, the officer described what it was like.

"When the sheriff gave the signal, the hangman moved the lever. There was a loud metallic clang as the trap door opened. Bolton disappeared from sight behind the tarpaulin.

"A prison warden released the rope while I supported the body. It looked about 7 feet long, hanging there. The toes were almost touching the ground. The tongue was out of his mouth. When the rope was removed it slurped back into his mouth.

"I will never forget this experience."

Other stories later claimed Bolton's execution had gone horribly wrong.

Rather than having his neck broken the instant the trapdoor opened, they alleged Bolton slowly strangled to death.

Between Maketu’s execution in 1842 and Walter Bolton in 1957, there were a further 82 executions.

The year 1866 was the busiest, with 10 executions in total.

Only one woman has been hanged in New Zealand and that was Williamina (Minnie) Dean – the so-called Winton Baby Farmer – who was executed at Invercargill in August 1895.

Executions were carried out in 10 different centres. In total, 41 people were executed in Auckland, 17 in Wellington and 7 in Lyttelton.

The death penalty was abolished in 1941, reinstated in 1950, and then abolished again in 1989.

Sources: stuff.co.nz, New Zealand History, February 17, 2017

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Court Finds Extraordinary Misconduct by Attorney for Alabama Death Row Prisoner

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held on Friday that death row inmate John Ward's attorney's failure to file an appeal on time was egregious unprofessional conduct.

John Ward was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1998. In July 2002, his family hired a lawyer to file a petition in state court to challenge Mr. Ward's conviction and sentence. The petition was due on August 1, 2003. The lawyer assured Mr. Ward that he would file the petition on time, but without telling Mr. Ward or his family, he decided not to file a petition in state court as he was hired to do.

Mr. Ward wrote dozens of letters and called his attorney multiple times about the status of his petition. When he couldn't reach his lawyer, he wrote to the court, which notified him that no petition had been filed. Mr. Ward asked the court for more time and a new lawyer to file his petition, but it was already too late.

In 2005, a different lawyer finally filed Mr. Ward's petition in state court, but it was dismissed because it was filed long after the deadline. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court acknowledged that a late filing can be excused if the attorney's actions are "far enough outside the range of behavior that reasonably could be expected by a client that they may be considered 'extraordinary.'" The court ruled that Mr. Ward should have a chance to prove that the late filing was not his fault and should be excused because of his lawyer's unprofessional conduct.

On Friday, the Alabama Court of Criminal appeals agreed that his attorney's conduct was sufficiently egregious to excuse Mr. Ward's late filing. "Ward instructed his retained attorney to file a postconviction petition in the circuit court," the court explained. "Instead, the attorney disregarded his client's express wishes . . . thereby violating one of his basic obligations as an attorney –- the obligation to defer to his client's wishes on major decisions." Further, the court found that "Ward did not sit on his rights but that he repeatedly sought help in both state court and federal court."

The failure to provide adequate counsel to capital defendants and death row prisoners is a defining feature of the American death penalty. There is no statewide public defender office to provide legal assistance to people on Alabama's death row, and the United States Supreme Court has detailed the deficiencies in the state's death penalty system.

Source: Equal Justice Initiative, February 16, 2017

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Iran: Corpse of executed man sold for $3,000 to medical school

NCRI - Selling unclaimed corpses in Iran has been widely noticed in recent weeks after it was found that medical colleges are paying up to $3,000 per corpse in the black-market, according to new reports.

The state-run Rokna news agency reported on February 15 that the lack of deceased bodies has forced medical students to seek help from the black markets to buy corpses to use as cadavers for medical research purposes.

The report said around 100 unclaimed corpses were found in Tehran’s streets, with doctors urging that they should be handed to medical schools so that students may benefit from them.

Rokna quoted Niousha Mohammadzadeh, a practicing doctor, as saying that her college had purchased three bodies, one of which belonged to a man who was executed in prison and who didn’t have immediate relatives. His corpse cost 10 million toman ($3,000), she said. 

The second body belonged to a homeless person and the third body was of an unidentified person.

Trading human organs is currently legal under the Iranian regime’s law. 

The poor are often exploited to sell body organs such as kidneys, a practice that has spread widely in recent years in Iran.

Source: NCRI, February 17, 2017

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Alabama: Jury would have final say on death penalty under House bill

A bill that would change Alabama law to give juries the final word on whether to impose a death sentence or life in prison won approval today in the House Judiciary Committee.

Under current law, judges can override the sentence recommendations of juries in capital cases. No other state allows that.

A bill by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would say that juries determine the sentences in capital cases, which are either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

England's bill would also require all 12 jurors to hand down a death sentence.

Current law requires 10 of 12 jurors to recommend death.

"To me, it never really made sense that we require unanimity when we're convicting a person, but we don't require unanimity when we're putting that person to death," said England, who is a lawyer.

The committee approved England's bill on a 10-2 vote, sending it to the full House.

The committee rejected an amendment by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, that would have retained the threshold of 10 jurors for a death sentence.

Hill, a retired circuit judge, voted in favor of England's bill.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a similar bill by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery.

Brewbaker's bill does not change the threshold of 10 jurors to recommend death.

A report released in 2011 by the Equal Justice Initiative found that Alabama judges had overridden jury recommendations in capital cases 107 times since 1976.

In 92 % of those cases, judges had overridden jury verdicts of life imprisonment to impose death sentences.

Judges are elected in Alabama. England did not say judges issue death sentences for political reasons. But he said said ending the authority of judges to override juries and requiring unanimous jury agreement on death sentences would improve public confidence in the judicial system.

Voting in favor of England's bill were Reps. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia; Hill; Thad McClammy, D-Montgomery; Paul Beckman, R-Prattville; Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove; Dickie Drake, R-Leeds; Allen Farley, R-McCalla; Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham; and Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka.

Voting against it were Reps. Matt Fridy, R-Montevallo and Phillip Pettus, R-Killen.

Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, abstained.

Source: al.com, February 16, 2017

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Florida: House panel approves death penalty fix

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
Florida is 1 step closer to being able to sentence people to death.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would require unanimous jury recommendations before defendants could be sentenced to death. A similar bill in a Senate committee passed last week.

Legislation this year is necessary to reinstate Florida's death penalty.

The Florida Supreme Court last year found unconstitutional a law that would have required at least 10 of 12 jurors to recommend death.

That short-lived law was in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the previous law, which required only a majority decision from a jury in order to recommend the death penalty. That decision came in the middle of last year's legislative session, so legislators tried a quick fix.

Right now, Florida technically does not have the death penalty. This has caused a backlog of cases as prosecutors try to delay trials until the death penalty in Florida is fixed.

"We have 50 cases ready to be tried in the state of Florida," said Buddy Jacobs, a lobbyist who works for state prosecutors. "This is a real crisis."

In South Florida, the death penalty snafu most recently surfaced in the ongoing murder trial of Fidel Lopez, a Sunrise man accused of disemboweling his girlfriend in 2015. Because of the current status of the law, the judge in that case barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty. An appeals court allowed prosecutors to at least make an argument for the death penalty, putting the trial on hold temporarily.

The House bill, filed by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, would make the jury recommendation portion of Florida's death penalty law the same as the other 27 states that require a unanimous jury recommendation of death to impose the death penalty. 3 other states have death penalties imposed by judges without jury recommendations. The other 19 states have no death penalty.

Both the Senate and House versions of the bill face one more committee hearing next week. Assuming they pass, which is likely given the unanimous votes in the 1st Senate and House committee hearings, the bills will then be ready for floor votes when the legislative session begins on March 7.

Although House Democrats on the Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted for the bill, they expressed some reservations. According to anti-death penalty advocates who spoke before the committee, multiple studies that have shown the death penalty is generally imposed more often for minorities who commit the same offense under similar circumstances as white criminals.

"I would hope some of the comments that have been made, such as [a Florida legislative policy] study ... would be in place by the time the bill comes to the floor," said state Rep. Sharon Prichett, D-Miami Gardens.

Without a study weighing any inherent bias in Florida's death penalty, Pritchett said she would probably not support the bill when it is up for a vote before the full House, where the bill is likely to pass.

Source: Sun Sentinel, February 16, 2017

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Kansas introduces bill to abolish death penalty

Kansas small town
Lawmakers, faith leaders and activists convened at the Kansas state capitol to hear testimonies both for and against the death penalty on Feb. 13. Kansas is currently deliberating on House Bill 2167, which was introduced - with bipartisan support - in the House on Jan. 25 and aims to abolish the death penalty in the state and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.

The Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice heard seven people testify their support for the bill, as well as accepted the written testimonies from more than 20 other individuals to support it. Some of the individuals writing their support for the bill included exonerees Floyd Bledsoe, Eddie Lowery and Darryl Burton - all men who were wrongly convicted of murder in Kansas and Missouri. 5 different families of murder victims also wrote in their support for the bill.

Donna Schneweis, board chair of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, represented the coalition at the hearing and reported that the room was "packed" with supporters of the bill.

"It is quite impressive how many Kansans from so many backgrounds came forward to speak up for abolition," Schneweis told NCR following the hearing.

Schneweis said that she was particularly moved by the testimony of Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College.

"Opposition to the death penalty in no way lessens one's awareness of the evil that some are capable of committing. It does say that there is a better way. Death should never be seen as a solution to our problems; and it is not the solution to violent crime," Swetland was quoted as saying at the hearing.

No persons testified in person either against the bill or expressing neutrality to it. However, a few provided their written testimony to the committee. Kim Parker, the former chief deputy district attorney for Sedgwick County, provided the only neutral testimony. Those providing testimony against the bill were Derek Schmidt, Kansas attorney general, and Larry Heyka and Amy James, both murder victim family members.

Members of the Committee did not take a vote following the hearing.

This isn't the 1st time such a bill has been brought to the floor of the Kansas state government. In 2010, the senate was 1 vote short of replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole according to the Catholic Mobilizing Network.

The current proposed bill was introduced and sponsored by eight Republican and seven Democrat representatives early this year. Robert Dunham, the executive director of the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, sees the bill as a reflection of the emerging trends in terms of death penalty legislation.

"The only states that are left that are seeking to abolish the death penalty require bipartisan support for abolition efforts to succeed," Dunham said. "Opponents of the death penalty are moving away from the traditional, moral, economic and racial fairness issues to making arguments based on government overreaching. Do we trust the government to get the policy right?"

"The Kansas approach with Republicans taking the lead in a bipartisan effort is what we would expect to see ... in the new landscape," he continued. "That is, as fiscal and philosophical conservatives view the death penalty pragmatically instead of ideologically, they are concluding in greater numbers that the death penalty is a failed public policy. It's costly and ineffective for purposes of sound fiscal management, as well as because of the inability to fairly administer it and the risk to innocent lives."

If the bill were to pass, it would not be applied retroactively, leaving the 10 inmates currently on death row still eligible for the death penalty. However, the state hasn't executed anyone since 1965.

Kansas' relatively small death row and lack of executions "shouldn't be a surprise," Dunham said.

"The single most likely outcome of a capital case is not that they'll be executed," he added. "The single most likely outcome is that the sentence will be overturned. Kansas sends relatively few people to death row, and there continues to be significant issues in those cases. So we can expect that the majority of Kansas cases will continue to be overturned."

"Now that's where Kansas gets another one of the patterns that we see in states that have gone to abolition. States that abolish the death penalty typically have small numbers of death sentences resulting in few, if any executions. And after a certain period of time the death penalty begins to look like it doesn't serve any purpose."

Dunham compared the proposed bill to the bill that was successfully passed in Nebraska in 2015 - which was later repealed in a referendum vote Nov. 8, 2016 - and a bipartisan bill that is currently moving through the Washington state senate. When asked about the chances that the Kansas bill will pass, Dunham said he doesn't "think you can predict that."

"What you can say is that there are a number of similarly situated states and there are bills moving forward, or bills that are introduced in a number of them," he said. "There will be close votes and it is impossible to predict what the results will be. Montana is another state that fits the profile that Kansas does. There was no opposition to the bill in the course of the public hearing. ... It was a close bill but the bill did not move forward."

"Whether [the Kansas bill] succeeds will depend on local factors. Individual legislatures decide after their constituents talk to them," he said.

Source: National Catholic Reporter, Kristen Whitney Daniels, February 16, 2017

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

North Carolina: Black inmate moved off death row after sentencing by all-white jury

Phillip Antwan Davis
Phillip Antwan Davis
A judge has moved a North Carolina inmate off death row, amidst allegations that prosecutors illegally discriminated on the basis of race during jury selection.

After nearly 20 years on death row, 39-year-old Phillip Antwan Davis was re-sentenced on Friday to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Davis was originally sentenced to death in the 1996 murders of his aunt and her daughter in Asheville.

An all-white jury sentenced Davis, who is black, to death after he pleaded guilty to the murders.

Prosecutors purposefully excluded the only qualified black juror from the 1997 jury that decided Davis’ sentence, according to the N.C. Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Prosecutors in the case had attended a training session where they were taught to give excuses for striking jurors. In a news release issued Monday, the death penalty litigation center said that such excuses were used “to mask their intention of ridding the jury of African Americans.”

It is illegal to strike jurors based on race.

When they excluded the black juror, prosecutors noted that she was wearing a cross earring and objected to her Tweetie Bird t-shirt, which they said indicated she didn’t take the case seriously, the center said.

Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, who was elected to that office in 2014, agreed that Davis should be re-sentenced to life without parole.

Williams cited several reasons, including Davis’ age at the time of the crime, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times. Davis was 18 when he committed the murders. Had he been under 18, he would not have been eligible for the death penalty.

Williams also noted that Davis accepted responsibility for the murders and pleaded guilty to the crimes, the Citizen-Times story said.

In court on Friday, Davis expressed his continuing regret for the killings:

“To family members and anyone who knew Joyce and Caroline, they were two very special people who were loved by a lot of people including myself,” Davis said. “I regret everything that happened and it’s something I’ll regret for the rest of my life.”

Source: Charlotte Observer, Ames Alexander, February 13, 2017

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