Delivering Justice without Death Penalty

Delivering Justice without Death Penalty

Capital punishment continues to divide public opinion; with a dedicated cadre of proponents and detractors on each side of the issue. For many, it is a matter of morality and decency, rather than a public safety issue. On the other side of the argument are those committed to the death penalty’s place within the justice system, pointing to its effectiveness as a deterrent and form of social control.

Capital punishment has a long and storied history, appearing in civilizations BC, well before making its way to America’s settlements. The 1600’s marked the first executions of criminals in the Colonies, spurring a debate about capital punishment that continues today. Revisions have continually changed the place of capital punishment on American soil, including prohibitions and endorsements from the United States Government as well as those put-forth by individual states and territories. The early 1970’s saw the structure of today’s capital punishment laws established, through a series of court actions that first prohibited the practice in 1972, and then codified its legal status in 1976.

The vigor with which executions are carried out varies across individual states, with California and Florida currently leading the way for inmates sentenced to death. Altogether, more than 3000 inmates currently sit on death row, reflecting a total that has exceeded 3000 individuals annually since 1995. On the other hand, more than 1300 prisoners have been executed by individual states and federal authorities since capital punishment was enacted in 1976.

Ironically, the Supreme Court had issued decisions prior to 1976 identifying the death penalty as a form of cruel and unusual punishment, yet 30 years later we have failed to return to the wisdom the courts clearly saw. Recent developments, however, illustrate a sea change in the way capital punishment is viewed by the current court, so the tide may again be turning toward compassion and  common sense.

Florida Case Supports Less Killing

Hall v Florida involves a man of limited mental capacity sentenced to death for his role in a decades-old crime. At issue is Florida’s standard for determining who may be executed. According to the decision handed down in 2002, states largely control how they judge who’s fit for execution. In the Florida case, the convicted death row inmate, Freddie Lee Hall, missed the cut off by as little as a single point. In other words, had Hall’s test score fallen one point lower, sufficient mental limitations would have been deemed present, barring Mr. Hall from execution in the state.

The Supreme Court ruled that the standard for determining mental competency is too rigid in Florida, a decision that will impact other states as well. According to the precedent set by the 2002 Atkins case, states were given loose guidelines to follow determining whether inmates are fit for execution. The general standards furnished by Atkins require low I.Q., significant social and practical impairment, as well as the presence of both conditions prior to reaching adulthood.

Although this session’s Hall case fell within the established guidelines extended by the Atkins court, today’s Supreme Court determined that the mechanical approach does not account for the whole picture in some cases. According to the decision, analysis of co-existing mental conditions and other extenuating factors serve justice, rather than simply assigning numbers to death row inmates’ cognitive abilities.

One would hope the trend supported by this week’s decision is one toward further limitations of arcane justice practices like capital punishment. In light of the ruling, several states will be required to adjust their approaches to the death sentence, including those with an established I.Q. threshold on the books. This overt repudiation from the courts is one step closer to justice without the death penalty.

Author: Daphne Holmes contributed this guest post. She is a writer from http://www.arrestrecords.com and you can reach her at daphneholmes9@gmail.com.

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The Death Penalty in the USA

The Death Penalty in the USA

This post by ArrestRecords.com is filled with simple and informative graphics on the Death Penalty in the USA. The graphics include data regarding:

  • countries and states with the most executions,
  • methods of execution,
  • statistics on race, “the single-most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death,”
  • wrongful convictions and reasons for them,
  • and public opinion about alternatives to the death penalty.

Death Penalty Infographic

The Death Penalty in the USA. Produced from ArrestRecords.com

Statements by Delaware Community Leaders Responding to Delaware Supreme Court Unanimous Reversal of Conviction and Death Sentence of Jermaine Wright

Statements by Delaware Community Leaders Responding to Delaware Supreme Court Unanimous Reversal of Conviction and Death Sentence of Jermaine Wright

Wilmington (May 21, 2014) – On Monday, May 19th, in a 5-0 unanimous ruling, the Delaware Supreme Court overturned the conviction of death row prisoner Jermaine Wright, citing a “miscarriage of justice.” After 21 years, Mr. Wright was the longest serving inmate on Delaware’s death row.

With no physical evidence linking him to the crime, Mr. Wright was convicted on the basis of a false confession extracted over the course of 13 hours of confinement and ten hours of interrogation, during which he was high on heroin. The Superior Court found, and numerous nationally recognized experts have testified, that the confession, which conflicts with the evidence collected in the case, is not credible and that Mr. Wright’s ability to waive his Miranda rights was impaired. The only other evidence presented against him was the now-discredited testimony of a jailhouse snitch, who had a history of cooperating with the prosecution and later revealed that he believed he would receive leniency in sentencing for his testimony.

The Delaware Repeal Project is a coalition of organizations, community partners, faith leaders and individuals dedicated to repealing the death penalty in Delaware through the passage of Senate Bill 19. We have 29 partner organizations, including the ACLU of Delaware, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and Delaware Center for Justice, as well as the Bishops and leaders of the largest religious organizations in our state. Members of the Delaware Repeal Project today issued the following statements.

Statement by Senator Karen E. Peterson (D – Stanton)

The Jermaine Wright case proves that Delaware’s death penalty system is just as flawed as any other states’. This was a textbook case of wrongful conviction—no physical evidence, false snitch testimony, a coerced confession that didn’t even line up with the facts of the case, and prosecutorial misconduct. It is time for us to turn our back on this broken system and bring Senate Bill 19 to the House floor for a full debate and vote. We cannot risk executing an innocent person for a crime they did not commit.

Statement by Sherry Dorsey Walker, 6th District Council Member, City of Wilmington and spokesperson for the Delaware Repeal Project

For close to two years now, the coalition partners of Delaware Repeal have been educating the community and engaging in a dialogue about the death penalty in Delaware. The facts are on our side—the death penalty does not deter crime or keep our community safe; it is unfairly applied to poor people, people of color and the mentally ill; it is exorbitantly expensive and wastes state resources; and it risks executing an innocent person.

Until yesterday, the risk of executing an innocent person in Delaware was brushed aside. However, the case of Jermaine Wright proves that Delaware does make mistakes when it comes to the criminal justice system. When dealing with the severity of a death sentence, we cannot afford to make mistakes.

We call on the House of Representatives to bring Senate Bill 19 to the floor for a full debate and vote. We call on the General Assembly and Governor Markell to end Delaware’s flawed death penalty immediately.

Statement by Kristin Froehlich, Board President, Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty:

The members of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty are pleased with the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Jermaine Wright’s wrongful conviction and death sentence. We have heard so often from death penalty supporters, “Delaware does it right. Delaware doesn’t make mistakes.” This reversal demonstrates that Delaware’s death penalty process is indeed flawed. The time, money, and financial resources that went into convicting and sentencing Mr. Wright were merely an effort to win a case, not to find the true killer and hold him accountable. This reversal confirms once again that Delaware’s death penalty is ineffective, with more than 1/3 of death sentences in Delaware being reduced or overturned.

Although we are pleased for Mr. Wright and his family, we are mindful of the suffering this decision gives to the family of murder victim Philip Seifert. The legal finality that would allow them some peace has been shattered again. As long as we tell families that the death penalty is going to heal their pain, we are setting them up for more suffering.

We need to be vigilant that we are not convicting the wrong person, both for the sake of the defendant, but also for victims’ families. If we don’t find the real killer, then we also put our communities at risk of more violence.

We ask that the Attorney General not retry this case and instead focus on reducing violent crime in Delaware.

Statement by Kathleen MacRae, Executive Director, ACLU of Delaware:

Delaware must face the fact that the state’s so-called criminal “justice” system is severely and chronically flawed. The case of Jermaine Wright illustrates a failure of justice dating back over 20 years. Prosecutors and police violated the Constitution and ignored evidence in order to close a case and get a win. Mr. Wright’s life has been spared, not because of the system, but in spite of the system. We should be profoundly thankful to the judge and justices who decided to overturn his conviction because of repeated errors and withheld evidence. They have kept us from executing an innocent man.

Unfortunately, the death penalty system is not Delaware’s only problem. Evidence stolen and replaced in the Medical Examiner’s Office has undermined the validity of hundreds of drug convictions. The severe underfunding of the Public Defender’s office has led to thousands of poor Delawareans represented by legal counsel who are spread too thin when facing serious prosecution or not represented at all, in direct violation of their Constitutional rights.

We need to repeal the death penalty in Delaware immediately. We have too many other criminal justice challenges to confront and remedy. We should not be wasting further time, talent and money on continued use of the death penalty in Delaware.

Statement by President Richard Mouse Smith, Delaware State NAACP Conference of Branches

The Delaware State NAACP Conference of Branches has historically opposed the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including racial disparities in how it is applied, which is particularly egregious in Delaware. The fact that Jermaine Wright, a black man with impaired mental capacity, was coerced into a false confession while evidence of other suspects in the crime was suppressed does not surprise us. The fact that a jailhouse snitch was instrumental in securing this conviction does not surprise us. There can be no more excuses. Delaware nearly executed an innocent black man. The NAACP of Delaware demands that Senate Bill 19 be brought to the House floor for an up or down vote in the current session. Any legislator who opposes repeal of the death penalty under these circumstances is risking further miscarriages of justice, and that is simply unacceptable.

Statement by Rev. Dr. Silvester S. Beaman, President, Interdenominational Ministers Action Council

As leaders in the faith community, and particularly in the African American community, the Interdenominational Ministers Action Council (IMAC) stands all too often with the victims of homicide and their families. As we hold them in love and prayer, we express renewed concern at the possibility of wrongful incarceration and execution in Delaware. When the wrong person is held accountable, the guilty remain free to create more victims. IMAC is particularly concerned now that the Delaware Supreme Court has recognized such injustice as to vacate the conviction and death sentence of Jermaine Wright. We urge that the death penalty be removed as a sentencing option so that the only ultimate punishment used in Delaware is that which the vast majority of killers already receive: life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Life imprisonment keeps us safe, it is severe punishment, and if we find that we have made a mistake, we can release an innocent person. One cannot release someone from a grave.

Statement by Rabbi Yair D. Robinson, Congregation Beth Emeth, Wilmington

In light of the Delaware Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in the Jermaine Wright case, we cannot avoid the question: how many innocent people have been executed in our name? Delaware law, despite its attempts at safeguards, cannot guarantee accuracy. Problems of coerced confessions, false witnesses, mishandled physical evidence, and questionable testimony may exist, despite best efforts, compromising truth and justice. Even if more stringent rules of evidence were put in place, the possibility for error remains. The only safeguard against mistaken executions is no executions. It is time to pass Senate Bill 19.

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Wright death sentence overturned

Wright death sentence overturned – 5/21/14 News Journal article by Sean O’Sullivan.

“Wright is not entitled to a perfect trial, but he is entitled to a fair one,” wrote Justice Henry duPont Ridgely for the full court, noting that the state improperly withheld evidence. While each item withheld was comparatively minor, the cumulative effect “creates the reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different … [had] the evidence been disclosed.”

Rep. Darryl Scott responds to reversal of Jermaine Wright’s conviction and death sentence

Delaware State Rep. Darryl Scott, House sponsor of SB19 to repeal Delaware’s death penalty, responds to the Delaware Supreme Court’s reversal of Jermaine Wright’s conviction and death sentence.

I issued the following statement today in response to Monday’s decision by the Delaware Supreme Court to reverse the murder conviction and death sentence of Jermaine M. Wright.

This decision from the Delaware Supreme Court highlights an important flaw in our criminal justice system, one even the best systems possess: No criminal justice system is perfect. No criminal justice system is infallible. It is possible, even in cases that receive as much scrutiny and have the highest burden of proof, that mistakes can be made.

We must remember that justice does not only mean convicting those who are guilty, but also acquitting the innocent and ensuring that all receive a fair trial. If we cannot guarantee that, how can we take a person’s life?

Since we introduced Senate Bill 19 last year, opponents have said that we do not need to repeal the death penalty in Delaware in part because we do not have the problems other states have had and we haven’t exonerated a man sentenced to death row like Maryland. Now we have evidence that a Delaware jury convicted and a judge sentenced Jermaine Wright to death in a case where the prosecution withheld evidence that would have had a material impact on the outcome of the trial. Had the Supreme Court not reversed Wright’s conviction, Delaware might very well have sent a man unfairly convicted to his death.

When do we as a society have enough evidence that this is an inherently flawed system? When we actually execute an innocent person? Smart government is legislating to prevent tragedies like this, not waiting for one to happen and then passing a law to fix it. We have an opportunity to prevent this type of error from ever occurring again by bringing SB 19 to the House floor for a vote to repeal the death penalty.

Don’t allow feelings to cloud judgment about death penalty

Don’t allow feelings to cloud judgment about death penalty – click on this link to access the online letter and its comments

5/21/14 News Journal Letter to the Editor by Kristin Froehlich, sister of a murder victim and Board President of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty

In response to his editorial “Should Delaware Still Have the Death Penalty?” John Sweeney asks us to debate some hard questions about the death penalty. I welcome a forthright discussion. However, I warn against getting mired in how we “feel.” Feelings are what have kept us from addressing the realities of Delaware’s death penalty as it is practiced. Feelings are what keep the death penalty on the books when Delaware has the 8th highest murder rate in the country. Feelings are what keep legislators from discussing the systemic bias in Delaware’s death penalty. Feelings are what blind us to Delaware’s death penalty failure rate (more than 1/3 of death sentences are reduced to life without parole.) Feelings are what prevent the true financial costs of the death penalty in Delaware from being disclosed. Feelings are what promote the death penalty as “the” answer for victims’ families when the vast majority of families will never have access to it. Feelings are what keep law enforcement and corrections leadership staunchly supporting the death penalty while they go begging for personnel, raises, and resources. Feelings are what keep Senate Bill 19 stuck in the House Judiciary Committee instead of allowing the facts to be debated before the full House. I “feel” disgusted that this barbaric practice remains common in Delaware, but I know my feeling is not relevant to people who disagree with me or to decision-makers. Let’s take up John Sweeney’s challenge and discuss the hard questions.

DCODP Monthly Meeting Monday 5/26/14 at 5:30pm

Join us as we discuss our next steps after the recent reversal of Jermaine Wright’s conviction and death sentence. We will have our usual monthly DCODP meeting, Monday 5/26/14 at 5:30 pm. Yes, it really is scheduled on Memorial Day. LOCATION: Wilmington Friends Meeting House, 1st floor Social Room, 401 N. West St, Wilmington, DE 19801. Park in the parking lot on the 5th Street side or on the street. Ring the doorbell at the West Street entrance. Call 302-379-0488 for info. All are welcome!